By Katie Laird
Environmentalists throughout the state are concerned about the effect newly proposed legislation could have on wilderness areas in Washington County.
The controversial bill permits the sale of 25,000 acres of federal land to be sold to private developers or Washington County, a move that could end up doubling the size of St. George. To make up for the protected wilderness that would be lost to development, it designates 15 new areas in the county as wilderness with federal protection from urban sprawl.
The opposition has pointed out that over half those protected areas are either under federal protection already or located within Zion National Park, also federally protected wilderness.The Washington County Lands Draft Proposal, sponsored by Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, and Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, is currently being readied for Congress, but Bennett told The Associated Press that although environmental groups do have the power to block the legislation, it would be to their detriment.
“They will be among the big losers, because the uncontrolled growth that”s going on in that part of Utah is ultimately going to do them far more damage than the solutions laid out in this bill,” Bennett told the AP.
“It”s really disingenuous to say he”s proposing this massive amount of wilderness when it”s maybe only half that amount,” said Mary Suarez, vice-chair of the Glen Canyon Group, a southern Utah division of the Sierra Club.
Not only would developers get what many see as a gold mine of land to vie for, but water developers will be given 14 square miles of public land free of charge to meet the water needs of the Washington County”s growing population.
The bill”s measures might very well double St. George”s population, a city whose population has already increased of 13.5 percent between 2001 and 2003, compared to the state”s overall population increase of only 5.3 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Suarez said she thinks there are more things to consider than just population increase when it comes to protecting the environment.
“There”s growth and then there”s growth,” she said. “There needs to be a better look at what is smart growth; is there growth just because there”s demand?”
Suarez said she”s also concerned about the land west of St. George, home to tortoises and Joshua trees that will be in danger with the construction of the bill”s proposed bypass highway.
“There needs to be a compromise reached among all parties,” she said. “We all own that land. It”s public land, so there needs to be an agreement.”
Jim Hook, the owner of Recapture Lodge in Bluff, Utah, guides trips with pack llamas into the Comb Ridge area. Despite the fact that his livelihood depends on the preservation of the wilderness, he recognizes the dilemma facing the state with the need for more space.
“This is a finite resource and there”s more and more demand for it,” he said. “It bothers me to see federal lands being sold. I”m very uncomfortable with that, but I”m from the West, and that”s the reason I love being out here. But when you live here it”s all around and always has been and you just take it for granted.”