March 1, 2009

Future of long-sought Utah lands bills in question

By Lee Davidson
Deseret News

When the Senate convened this year, it quickly passed a much-ballyhooed package of hundreds of public lands bills — including several affecting Utah. Quick House passage for that omnibus bill was expected, but something funny happened on the way to that forum.

Upon closer inspection, members of both parties there found much in it that gave them heartburn. It has forced Democratic leaders to keep delaying consideration, because they are not sure they have enough votes to pass it.

That is putting into doubt several long-sought Utah bills in the package, including a major one worked out over many years to determine which areas of Washington County should be maintained as pristine, and which should allow development. Others bills affect Park City open space, a Bountiful gun range, a Utah Boy Scout Camp and trails used by Mormon pioneers.

"As good as the Utah bills are, there is so much else that is so outrageously bad that it kind of hurts your heart," says Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah.

He has two bills in the package himself (affecting Park City and Bountiful). But as the ranking Republican on the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, he is helping formulate GOP opposition to the bill as now written.

He says the question for Republicans, and many Democrats, is whether they will put up with a lot of bad to pass small, good home-state bills they personally seek.

Bishop said, "Somebody described the whole thing to me like this: You purchase a book that is full of erotic violence because you like a paragraph on page 242. The overall package is still bad."

Among the controversial bills in the package are: increasing penalties for those who take fossils from public lands (which some worry might make amateur fossil hunters criminals); granting wild and scenic status to the Taunton River in Massachusetts, even though it includes some heavy industrial areas; allowing a road through an internationally recognized wetland in Alaska; and codifying a National Landscape Conservation System set up by the Clinton administration but opposed by many Republicans.

"If they could cull out maybe 50 of the real stinkers (in the package), they might have a bill that's not bad enough to get people upset," Bishop said.

Also, he says many House Democrats have heartburn because the Senate stripped from its version all amendments that the House had earlier added to individual bills when it had debated and passed many separately, before they were all bundled together.

"So some of those (stripped) amendments that are bringing them grief now are protection of hunting and fishing rights, gun rights … (and) private property rights," Bishop said.

With the problems, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., last week would not say exactly when the bill may reach the floor, but said he hoped it would be before the House's spring recess.

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall II, D-W.V., explained the delay to Congressional Quarterly, saying, "We want to make sure we have the votes."

So again hanging in limbo is the Washington County land bill that had been negotiated for more than a decade.

It would create two new national conservation areas to provide permanent protection for the endangered desert tortoise and other at-risk species near St. George, allowing development in other areas. It would also do such things as create more than 250,000 acres of wilderness areas in the county and enlarge Zion National Park to include some of them.

That bill also would designate 165.5 miles of the Virgin River as a wild and scenic river, sort of a wet wilderness area. It also authorizes the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to sell excess BLM lands in the county not considered to be environmentally sensitive, and to use the proceeds to buy lands that are considered biologically significant.

The other Utah bills hanging in limbo include a trade to give a Boy Scout camp near Brian Head more usable land; one to give Park City some federal tracts within its boundaries to protect as open space; a trade to bring federal land to Bountiful including a gun range operated by the Lion's Club; and a bill to correct a surveying error that put part of the Turnabout Ranch for troubled youth into the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Another bill would study the possibility of giving federal protection to some alternate routes used by early travelers on the Mormon Pioneer, Pony Express, California and Oregon trails.