Monday, April 21, 2008


Grassroots Effort Brought Needed Revisions To Land Bill

(Published by the Salt Lake Tribune April 2008)

If you’re cynical about the effectiveness of grassroots political activism, you ought to consider what has transpired in Washington County in the past two years. It might change your mind.

In mid 2006, Senator Bennett and Representative Matheson jointly sponsored the Washington County Growth and Conservation Act of 2006 in the United States Congress. The substance of the legislation was developed under the direction of the then three elected commissioners of Washington County and was primarily the work of the commissioners and a small group of participants—an assemblage heavily tilted toward those who benefited from and favored growth. The resulting bill did include improved conservation of significant tracts of public land, but counterbalancing growth aspects of the bill—in particular the forced sell-off of 25,000 acres of public land to developers and the acquisition of utility corridors and future roadways through other currently protected public lands—ignited a firestorm of local protest. So much so that the commissioners bowed to public pressure and reluctantly agreed to sponsor a grassroots planning process—known as Vision Dixie—that would involve many local citizens.

In the meantime, Bennett and Matheson tried to push the bill through Congress, ignoring pleas from many to delay consideration of the bill until the Vision Dixie process completed and could be factored into the legislation. Their efforts failed and the bill died in committee, at least in part because colleagues in the Senate and House recognized it would be wise to wait for the Vision Dixie recommendations before considering how much public land to free-up in Washington County.

When the Vision Dixie process concluded in late 2007, it was immediately obvious that tabling the original legislation was the right thing to do. Several thousand citizens participated in exercises that produced a future vision of Washington County that protected scenic public lands and managed growth in a much more restrained manner than would have been possible had the land bill passed. Instead of auctioning off 25,000 acres of public land to developers, the vast majority of participants favored scenarios that limited disposal of public lands to less than 5,000 acres. Likewise, utility corridors and highways through protected and scenic lands were not part of the desired future for the county,.

The obvious disconnect between the commissioner’s land bill and the grassroots vision was stunning even in Utah, a state that recently overwhelmingly overturned the state legislature’s school voucher bill by a 62% majority. By way of comparison, the Vision Dixie margin of rejection of the county commissioner’s vision was a whopping 85% majority. The county commission wasn’t just out of touch. It was more like they were living on another planet.

Just last week, Senator Bennett and Representative Matheson introduced a revised land bill, this time reflecting the will of the people as expressed through the Vision Dixie process. Gone are the utility corridors and highways through protected and scenic habitats. Public land disposal has been reduced from 25,000 acres to 9,052 acres, with only 4,052 acres certain to happen and an additional 5,000 acres contingent upon an approval process consistent with Vision Dixie principles and BLM guidelines.

From my perspective, Bennett and Matheson deserve tremendous credit for taking a step back, listening to the citizens of Washington County and trying their best to produce a bill that is true to the Vision Dixie principles. It’s a great example of how representative government should work and a success story that would not have been possible without the grassroots organizations and thousands of individual citizens of Washington County who interjected themselves in the process, created at least the opportunity for a better future for the county and perhaps restored some faith in grassroots activism in the process.

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