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Piute County land bill moving forward

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SALT LAKE CITY — A public lands conservation proposal involving Piute County is inching forward, envisioning the possible creation of two new wilderness areas in this small county covering just 763 square miles.

In an update presented Thursday to board members of the state's School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, associate director John Andrews said the wilderness areas would be in the western section of the county in the Tushar Mountains and the Rocky Ford area on the east fork of the Sevier River.

The trust lands administration has proposed exchanging about 7,000 acres of land that would be locked up if the wilderness designation goes through.

Motivated by the success of the Washington County Lands Bill pushed by Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, and Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, many of Utah's rural counties are attempting to patch together land conservation plans that meet with the agreement of environmentalists, residents and county officials.

The impetus behind the planning is to craft legislation acknowledging wilderness, instead of risking sweeping designations such as national monument declarations or the Red Rock Wilderness Bill.

Piute County Commissioner Rick Blackwell said an exact amount of acreage for the wilderness areas remains on the negotiating table, with a field trip planned next week to those locations. The trip will include elected officials and representatives from environmental groups, among others.

"We have been working on this for four or five years, and we are hoping that in the next month we may have a bill ready to present," he said.

Andrews said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, would carry the measure if it is crafted.

"The hard work is starting to bear fruit," Andrews said.

Although its land holdings are limited, SITLA is looking to have its lands traded out to the BLM should they be captured by the designations. It wants that "exchange language" incorporated in the bill to protect the administration's interests, which are to manage its lands for the financial benefit of school children.

While it is "implicit" that SITLA would be provided the ability to be made whole if it lost land in a wilderness designation, there are no guarantees the exchange would happen in a timely and equitable manner.

"And there's no impetus to get the problem solved afterward by Congress," Andrews said.

Incorporating SITLA's interest in a land exchange as part of the bill, however, has been meet with some resistance by congressional staffers, who Andrews said characterized that component as an "anchor" that may bog down the legislation.

Margaret Bird, who represents the School Children's Trust with the state Office of Education, predicted that if SITLA's — and therefore school children's — financial needs aren't accommodated, there would be an obstacle much larger to worry about.

"The anchor from the outcry of taking school trust lands may be far larger than having the exchange in the bill," she said.

e-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com