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Lands council discusses Washington Co. project

Staff Writer

Brad Shafer, of Senator Robert Bennett's office, public lands department, was at the recent Emery County Public Lands Council meeting to give an update on the Washington County Growth and Conservation Act of 2006. This bill was recently introduced but has not yet received a hearing date.

"We expect that hearing to take place sometime in September," said Shafer. "Although this bill did not get accepted as an attachment to Nevada's White Pine bill, both bills will probably be given hearings together. We are cautiously optimistic that these two bills will be passed."

Shafer stated that all counties should be watching this issue because if it passes, it could set a precedent for all other counties in Utah. He continued to say that the bill couples conservation with economic development, and had an extensive public process to arrive at the language used in the bill. "And although we invited them many times, SUWA would not participate," said Shafer. Now, wilderness groups are upset because the bill does not contain enough wilderness.

In Title II of the bill, concerning the wilderness area, the bill designates approximately 219,725 acres of land within Washington County to be added to the National Wilderness Preservation System. This designation includes 123,743 acres of land managed by the National Park Service within Zion National Park. It also designates 93,340 acres of land managed by the Bureau of Land Management, and 2,642 acres of land managed by the US Forest Service. Nearly 93 percent of all the BLM wilderness study areas in Washington County are included in this designation.

In Title I, the bill provides for the disposal of approximately 4,300 acres over a six year period. The funds derived from the sale of these lands would be allocated as: 85 percent for federal purposes, such as protection of the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, which is designated by this act; continued purchase of non-federal lands within Washington County; trail repair and construction; conservation projects, such as parks, trails, and natural areas; appropriate fencing, signage, public education and enforcement of wilderness areas; establishing the High Desert Off Highway Vehicle Trail, including revision and implementation of a management plan; public use rights of way; and reimbursement of costs incurred by Utah State and St. George Office of the BLM.

Title III of the bill designates 165.5 miles of Virgin River segments as Wild and Scenic. These segments run across federal land within and adjacent to Zion National Park. This would be the first designation in Utah. Utah is the only western state without a Wild and Scenic river designation.

Title IV ensures that utility corridors are open for right of way designations. Title VI provides for the designation of the Red Cliff National Conservation Area. The land sales will also provide funding for continued acquisition of desert tortoise habitat within the habitat conservation plan area and to assist in the development and implementation of a management plan, including any necessary amendments to the Washington County Habitat Conservation Plan and mitigation beneficial to the desert tortoise.

"An important note is that before any lands may be sold, cultural assets will have to be mitigated," said Shafer. "Also, any valid existing rights, including grazing rights, will remain in place with this bill."

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