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Will There be Any Wilderness Left to Protect? After the Land Deals

After the Land Deals

by ERICA ROSENBERG


and JANINE BLAELOCH

A Washington County wilderness bill is in the works again. That should be good news for environmentalists. But whether this one, like the recent spate of "wilderness" bills, is really a developer’s dream in conservationist’s clothing remains to be seen.

Wilderness – the most protective land status – holds a special place in America’s public lands and in the hearts of conservationists. Because only Congress can designate wilderness, such designations have always involved compromise.

Traditionally, these compromises were about boundaries, acreage and wilderness management. Now, the scope of what’s on the table for wilderness bills has been considerably broadened to include much bigger trade-offs: areas that can be logged, opened to motorized recreation, or, as looms large in the Southwest, sold off for development.

Ironically, as wilderness becomes the engine for these larger land deals, these "wilderness bills" undercut, rather than protect, the land and the legal foundations of its protection.

In the West, communities surrounded by public land claim they have no room to grow. Over the years, a sympathetic Congress has enacted a range of mechanisms to allow local governments to get federal land. Agency decisions about which public lands to keep and which to sell off are made under laws and processes designed to protect the environment and to encourage public involvement.

Now, with environmentalists hungry for wilderness and counties hungry for land, wilderness-for-land-disposal bills are becoming the norm. Several of these deals are under way; three have already been enacted for Nevada. Support from some wilderness advocates provides cover for the development provisions that drive the deals.

In ratifying these allegedly "win-win" agreements, Congress invariably sidesteps laws designed to safeguard the public interest. For example, the Nevada acts mandated the sell-off and giveaway of vast amounts of public land, without benefit of the environmental studies and citizen participation normally required by law.

In the sprawling, drought-plagued West, these deals have huge implications for both land and water. The sell-off of public lands near Las Vegas facilitates the development of thirsty subdivisions and golf courses and massive water pipelines to feed them all.

Rather than providing some benefit to all Americans (the owners of the land, after all), the profits remain in-state, most going to the Las Vegas Bureau of Land Management office, and the rest to the state and local governments and utilities for the infrastructure to keep the vicious growth cycle going.

Modeled after the Nevada laws and introduced in 2006, Utah’s Washington County Growth and Conservation Act would have designated 220,000 acres of wilderness, much of it already part of Zion National Park. It simultaneously would have sold off nearly 40 square miles of public lands, some with significant cultural and natural resources.

While doubling the urbanized area of St. George (which didn’t even need the land), the bill would have bypassed public processes that require transparent decision making and some semblance of rationality in land decisions. One significant beneficiary of the deal would have been the Washington County Water Conservancy District, which stood to gain nearly $2 billion in land and profits from public land sales.

Wisely, Utah environmentalists didn’t fall for the wilderness bait of the 2006 proposal. They helped kill the bill and held out for something better – even while some of their counterparts supported equally egregious deals in Nevada and elsewhere. Others would do well to follow suit.

With less wilderness to designate and more land coveted for growth, conflicts over public land will only intensify. Nevertheless, wilderness advocates must resist the "wilderness-at-any-cost" mindset if the cost includes carving up the rest of our public lands and undermining environmental laws in the process.

ERICA ROSENBERG directs the program on public policy at Arizona State University’s law school. From 1999 to 2004 she was on the Democratic staff of the House Resources Committee.

JANINE BLAELOCH is director of the Western Lands Project.

They can be reached at: blaeloch@westernlands.org