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Bishop, Chaffetz help GOP torpedo massive land bill

They say it would lock up too much acreage, inhibit repairs in national parks

Published: Thursday, March 12 2009 7:39 a.m. MDT

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, was shouting, even though the House appeared poised to pass two of his own bills.

The bills were tucked into a massive package of 170 land bills, and Bishop almost spit out his words to condemn the overall bundle for locking up too many public lands, and diverting money from Utah national parks to "undeserving" new parks it would create.

Such loud complaints by Bishop and allies attracted just enough support to defeat the bill on Wednesday. The House voted 282-144 for it, but that fell two votes short of the two-thirds majority needed for passage under special rules that Democratic leaders used to bring it to the floor. They may attempt to try again later under normal rules.

The at-least temporary blockage of the bill leaves in limbo numerous Utah bills that are in it — including a major bill that would finally resolve which areas of Utah's fast-growing Washington County should be protected as pristine wilderness and help protect the endangered desert tortoise, and which may be developed.

Other Utah bills in the package include giving Park City federal land to protect as open space; giving Bountiful Forest Service land including a Lions Club gun range; helping a Boy Scout camp near Brian Head trade for more usable land; and studying protecting some alternate trails used by early Mormon Pioneers.

"As good as the Utah bills are, there is so much else that is so outrageously bad that it kind of hurts your heart," said Bishop, who helped lead opposition to the bill as the ranking Republican on the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands.

The package included two of his own bills to help Park City and Bountiful. But he said supporting the package to obtain them would be like, "You purchase a book that is full of erotic violence because you like a paragraph on page 242."

In debate Wednesday, he bellowed to the House that, among other things, the bill would make it more difficult to address a backlog of repairs in national parks — and he showed a picture of the visitors center at Dinosaur National Monument that has been closed for years as unsafe.

"Rather than fixing these types of buildings, within the bowels of this bill is a $34 million earmark to create a new national park in Patterson, N.J., which will protect such natural wonders as a condominium, a butterfly garden and a microbrewery," Bishop complained.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, joined in the complaining. He told the House, "This bill takes roughly 8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas out of production in Wyoming. At a time when we must strive for energy independence and people need jobs, this is not a time to further lock up our resources."

When the Senate convened in January with a new and bigger Democratic majority, it quickly passed the bill (with support from Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett, R-Utah). That overcame a months-long, one-man filibuster by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., against all land bills, complaining too many would block oil and gas drilling and hurt property rights.

Quick action was also expected in the House, but upon closer inspection members of both parties found much in it that gave them heartburn, and delayed action until Wednesday.

Democratic leaders thought they had enough support the bill by allowing just one amendment pushed by the National Rifle Association that clarified that the package was not intended to restrict hunters and fisherman from using federal lands. But enough Republicans wanted to allow consideration of more amendments that they blocked passage of the bill for now.

Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., ranking Republican on the full Natural Resources committee, said, "This vote was a rejection of Democrat Leaders' attempt to abuse the suspension process to jam through an over 1,200 page bill costing $10 billion without any chance to amend or improve it. The bill promotes more runaway Washington spending, blocks American-made energy production, obstructs job creation, restricts access to public land, and weakens border security."

So still hanging in limbo is the Washington County land bill that had been negotiated for more than a decade.

It would create two national conservation areas to provide permanent protection for the endangered desert tortoise and other at-risk species near St. George, allowing development in other areas. It would also do such things as create more than 250,000 acres of wilderness areas in the county, and enlarge Zion National Park to include some of them.

The bill also would designate 165.5 miles of the Virgin River as wild and scenic, sort of a wet wilderness area. It also authorizes the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to sell excess lands in the county not considered to be environmentally sensitive, and to use proceeds to buy lands that are considered biologically significant.

E-MAIL: lee@desnews.com

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