ST. GEORGE – After 20 years of service, Alan Gardner, who committed his life and career to fighting against what he calls “radical environmental policies,” officially hung up his hat as Washington County Commissioner last week, turning over his legacy to his good friend Dean Cox.
Since first taking office in 1996, the now-retired commissioner has spent this time dedicated to stopping environmental groups and policies that would lock up all public lands as wilderness areas and stop all development in Washington County, he said.
Gardner initially ran for office because of a request by former Commissioner Russ Gallian. Gallian made the request because of Gardner’s knowledge of the 12,500-acre desert tortoise habitat conservation plan the county had just spent months putting together.
“Back in 1989 when the tortoise was first listed, we watched it basically shut Las Vegas down because of the tortoise habitat,” Gardner said. “It closed down all their gravel pits. A lot of the areas where they were building their homes was all tortoise habitat. It literally closed that city down to any kind of growth. I was encouraged by the commissioners at that time to run for office and to be proactive in my approach in dealing with these issues, so I was.”
When the commissioner took office, approximately 55,000 residents were living in Washington County. Two decades later that number has tripled. However, Gardner said most of the people who have moved in to the area have no idea the work that went into keeping Washington County’s borders open to growth.
“Sometimes I look out over the county and I see the growth and I think about all these people who have moved in to the area in the last 30 years, and they have no idea what it took to enable them to come,” Gardner said. “They would not be here today if we had not been diligent in staying on top of these issues. We would have had nowhere to build out, so it literally would have shut Washington County down. Most of the people don’t know that.”
His first year in office, Gardner worked to open up thousands of acres of private property that at the time had been taken by the federal government for the tortoise habitat.
When the federal government put the tortoise on the endangered species list, they designated certain lands as habitat, including thousands of acres of private property.
The designation of habitat to endangered species greatly diminished the appraisal value of the private properties, as the land was no longer able to be developed. Lands in the St. George area that were once worth $10,000-$20,000 an acre as prime residential and commercial properties were only worth $200 to $300 an acre after the designation.
Affected private property owners called foul, including Gardner’s family, who owned thousands of acres then considered worthless.
Gardner worked with then-Congressman Jim Hansen to change the laws that dictated how the lands would be appraised. As a result, Hansen successfully attached a rider to the 1996 Omnibus Parks and Public Lands Management bill that specified landowners in Washington County would be paid market value for their lands as if the property did not have endangered species on it.
To this day, Washington County is the only place in the country where the federal government must pay real market value for private property inside endangered habitat.
Some of the landowners were financially compensated for their loss, while others participated in land exchanges where the federal government swapped land in one area for property inside the habitat.
Gardner also helped facilitate the 2009 Omnibus Public Lands Bill signed into law the same year by President Barack Obama. A sweeping conservation package, the law designated 256,000 acres in Southern Utah as wilderness while also committing 5,000-9,000 acres for development or energy exploration. Zion National Park was listed as part of the 256,000 acres of wilderness area.
Hailed by environmental groups, government leaders and private property owners, the bill helped settle a long raging debate over wilderness areas in Washington County.
“We had wilderness study areas, which are areas that are set aside. Basically they are locked up where you can’t do anything with them – hike, bike or even horseback ride,” Gardner said. “There was a big controversy on areas that BLM had recommended and the environmental groups had others. So it was a big battle over what was wilderness and what wasn’t. The goal with that bill was to settle the wilderness issue, and I think we’ve hopefully done that.”
Without both of these legislative efforts in 1996 and again in 2009, Washington County would have been largely landlocked and unable to grow, Gardner added.
Gardner also actively participated in the resource management plan that was required under the 2009 legislation designating the Beaver Dam Wash and Red Cliffs national conservation areas.
The Red Cliffs National Conservation Area is 44,725 acres and includes a portion of Red Mountain Wilderness Area, Snow Canyon State Park and areas north of St. George, Washington and Hurricane. It was primarily set aside to protect the desert tortoise.
Beaver Dam Wash National Conservation Area is 63,488 acres located in the southwest corner of Washington County as the transition zone between the Colorado Plateau, Great Basin and Mojave Desert ecosystems.
Besides his efforts to help create positive legislation, Gardner has sat on numerous boards and committees. Two of these were the Utah Association of Counties on which he served as the representative and then-president for the western interstate region and the National Association of Counties where he served as vice chairman over the public lands committee.
As part of his responsibilities, Gardner traveled thousands of miles over the years to testify in front of Congress on environmental policies he felt would negatively impact Southern Utah.
During his tenure, Gardner was responsible for the building of the new Senior Citizen Center in St. George and Dixie Convention Center, which included the new addition. He also took an active role in building the new library and the new satellite libraries located throughout the county, including those in Santa Clara and Hurricane.
While Gardner feels good about what he’s accomplished in office, he said there is still a lot of work to be done.
“In some things we’ve gone backwards,” Gardner said. “So yes, there is a lot of work to be done and a lot of issues still out there. We have to be vigilant at all times and stay on top of these issues because just when you solve one there’s always another one that’s right behind it you have to deal with.”
With a long resume of achievements, Gardner is the second-longest-standing commissioner in Washington County. Former Commissioner Jerry Lewis also spent 20 years in office.
“I never planned to stay in office this long. It wasn’t a choice I made to begin with,” Gardner said. “People would ask me, ‘Are you going to run again?’ and every time I’d tell them I didn’t know. And I really didn’t, because I hadn’t planned a career as commissioner, but here I am 20 years later. But I think it’s time to step down.”
With no real regrets behind him, Gardner said he is a little upset that he’s leaving when President-elect Donald Trump is coming into office.
“I’m a little disappointed, because I think we’re going to see some major changes regarding public lands and the environmental policies with the incoming administration,” Gardner said, “and I won’t be here to be a part of that.”
But the retired commissioner won’t be too far away, as he has no plans to retire his focus on public lands and environmental issues; rather, he plans to change his attention to working with the American Lands Council, the mission of which is largely centered on transferring the public lands now under federal jurisdiction to state control.
Even with his ongoing busy schedule, however, Gardner said he is looking forward to having a little more time to spend in Pine Valley at the family ranch with his grandkids.
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