In June 2006, Senator Robert F. Bennett and Congressman Jim Matheson, in consultation with the Washington County Commission and the BLM, introduced a comprehensive county lands bill The Washington County Growth and Conservation Act of 2006(SB 3636).
The bill was developed in response to the significant growth in Washington County, the limited amount of private land, and the spectacular resources of these public lands. Although not introduced until 2006, much of the content in the bill had been in the developmental stages for many years.
This piece of legislation contained provision for the designation of BLM land for wilderness, the expansion of Zion National Park, the designation of Wild and Scenic Rivers and the Creation of a National Conservation Area-Habitat for the Desert Tortoise. The legislation also called for disposal of lands deemed eligible for disposal. The revenue from these disposals would be used for public land management, for acquisition of conservable lands, and for conservation easements on private lands.
The act also allows for the protecting of endangered species through certain designations and for the protection of certain OHV Trails.
Title I – Land Disposals
SB 3636 directed the secretary of the interior to sell up to 24,300 acres in a two-tiered process. Federal land managers based in Washington County had already identified 4,300 acres of land for disposal, which would be sold after receiving the appropriate federal clearances. These acres would make up the first tier of land disposal. The first sale would occur within one year after the passage of the bill, with at least annual sales thereafter until the final prior to January 1, 2013. The second tier of land disposal includes up to 20,000 acres to be sold only after being identified by federal land managers in cooperation with Washington County. These lands must be selected from within areas identified on a map, excluding wilderness areas, the tortoise preserve, and other areas of critical environmental concern. The secretary of the interior would be authorized to include, where appropriate, restrictive covenants on the deeds of transfer to protect paleontological, archaeological, or other interests to the United States. These sales would not begin until 2011. The proceeds from the land disposal would fund conservation projects as well as federal and non-federal initiatives within Washington County. Projects included, but were not limited to: protection and management of the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, processing of wilderness designations, projects relating to parks, trails, and natural areas, and trail repair/reconstruction within the Dixie National Forest.
Title II – Wilderness
SB 3636 designated the addition of 219,725 acres of land to the National Wilderness Preservation System. At the recommendation of the National Park Service, wilderness designation would be given to 123,743 acres in Zion National Park. Wilderness designations also included 93,340 acres of BLM land and 2,642 acres of Forest Service land. This would have increased the percentage of wilderness acreage in the county from 3.4 % to 17.5%. This bill protected nearly 93% of existing BLM wilderness study areas and included no hard-release language. The bill also designated additional acreage not identified by the BLM but selected by the stakeholders within the working group.
Title III – Wild and Scenic River Designation
Following the National Park Service’s recommendation, this legislation designates 165.5 miles of the Virgin River and its tributaries as Wild and Scenic Rivers. This designation was the first Wild and Scenic River designation anywhere in Utah.
Title IV – Utility Corridors and Rights-of-Way
SB 3636 designated utility corridors in Washington County to meet the needs of the growing population. Subject to compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), these utility corridors would be used for transportation, water lines, or other such necessary transmission and utility distribution. The bill addressed the need for a transportation corridor around the south and west of St. George, diverting traffic from the center of the city by incorporating the Habitat Conservation Advisory Committee’s unanimous recommendation for identifying the Northern Corridor Bypass. This unanimous recommendation requires the secretary of the interior to study different routes and then designate the appropriate corridor. This process would allow science and public input to dictate where the corridor should be located. The bill also identifies a pipeline corridor to address the county’s future water needs.
Title V – High Desert Off-Highway Vehicle Trail
SB 3636 authorized the secretary of the interior to designate a system of existing motorized trails for off-highway vehicle (OHV) use. The bill gave the secretary two years from the passage of the bill to complete a travel plan identifying the appropriate existing routes to include in the trail system, making sure to allow for public participation in the final decision. The legislation did not authorize the creation of any new trails to be included in the trail system. By identifying these trails in an environmentally sensitive way, an opportunity is created for managed and responsible OHV use on the heavily used west side of the county.
Title VI – Red Cliffs National Conservation Area
SB 3636 created the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, giving permanent protection to the endangered desert tortoise. The current habitat management plan would expire in 2016.
Issues and Opposition
The Washington County Growth and Conservation Act of 2006 was seen by Utah’s congressional delegation and other stakeholders in Utah as a viable solution to the county’s current challenges. It was based on precedent legislation passed in Nevada, which Congress approved unanimously and which has worked extremely well to meet their growth needs. (These Nevada Public Lands Bills are summarized in Appendix 1.) Many believed it would responsibly manage growth in Washington County while putting conservation measures in place that would protect these natural treasures for future generations.
This bill, however, was opposed by some environmental and wilderness advocacy groups like the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Wilderness Society and others as well as members of Congress, for a variety of reasons. In their opinion, the bill failed to preserve over 70% of lands considered to be of wilderness quality in the Zion-Mojave region and would allow the sale of up to 25,000 acres of public lands, with some of the proceeds paying for local governmental agencies to build roads and water projects. They believed this would allow for the extensive building of pipelines, roads, and utilities, as well as the development of an off-road trail system throughout the county, all the while not protecting enough of the country public lands. Opponents of the bill made sure that members of Congress and the media knew the Washington County bill was not what they wanted for their wilderness. The environmental community was able to convince 120 local, regional and national organizations to go on record opposing this bill; newspapers across the country took editorial stands against it; and members of Congress received well over 100,000 emails from their constituents, and countless phone calls and letters opposing the bill.
On Tuesday, December 5, 2006, Sen. Robert Bennett (R-UT) and Rep. Jim Matheson (D-UT) acknowledged in the press that they would not be able to pass their Washington County Growth and Conservation Act (SB 3636/ HR 5769) during this session of Congress. As it turned out, incoming Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) persuaded House leaders to include his own White Pine County lands bill in tax legislation that passed both houses in the last 24 hours of the Congressional session.
The Emergence of Vision Dixie
Throughout the discussion of the Washington County Growth and Conservation Act of 2006 there was disagreement on many issues, but one issue where agreement could be found was in the need for a comprehensive regional vision for the future. While the Lands Bill was still being discussed and debated locally and in the halls of Congress, various organizations were working diligently to develop a process whereby all interested parties could pursue a model for cooperative, regional planning to provide a vision for this fast-growing part of America.
After much discussion, it was decided that the county would support and sponsor a Washington County Regional Quality Growth initiative. In a subsequent discussion, it was agreed that the planning effort would be called Vision Dixie, and the County Commissioner would take the leadership role in the development of this process. Stakeholders saw value in the process to guide the county’s future even if there were no Federal Public Lands Legislation.
The purpose of Vision Dixie was to create a long-term vision that ensured a high quality of life in Washington County for years to come. Vision Dixie engaged residents in a facilitated conversation about growth, gathering their ideas, employing sound data and scenario analysis, and outlining publicly supported principles as the foundation for a long-term vision.
Washington County Lands Bill Phase II
Once the Vision Dixie process was completed as committed, discussion has gone forward with revisiting the Lands Bill, making revisions and moving it forward in the Congress. This discussion will address the land conversion issues identified by Vision Dixie and make other revisions based on the outcomes of the process.
There has also been considerable discussion and work on incorporating many of the other issues and concerns identified in the original version of the bill, including expanding the amount of wilderness protection and additional National Conservation Areas. As of October 2008, the bill has not passed the congress but there is hope that the new version of the bill will receive considerably more support than the earlier versions, and that sometime in 2008 the bill may pass the Congress. If that does occur, Vision Dixie will be heralded as a great success model for how to provide a vision for a region and move forward with comprehensive public land legislation. However, the bill also contains much complexity and it is certainly possible that the bill will not pass and the various issues and their resolution will continue to be debated.
In either case it can be argued that Vision Dixie has been a huge success and will help guide growth and development in the county for the next 10-30 years. Obviously, constant work on implementation is necessary and as time goes on, revisions will also be required.