Utah's GOP delegation fires back over public land access

Published: Tuesday, June 14 2011 6:21 p.m. MDT

WASHINGTON — Utah's GOP congressional delegation hopes to protect the state from future national monument designations by presidential executive order, asserting the Beehive State has been "honored enough" with such declarations.

The Utah Lands Sovereignty Act prohibits the creation of any new national monuments within Utah except as authorized by Congress, essentially exempting Utah — like Wyoming — from The Antiquities Act.

"While I am not necessarily opposed to national monuments, I do not support efforts to create new designations, locking up thousands of acres of land, without the support of our local communities, residents and stakeholders," said Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, the act's sponsor and the current chairman of the House Natural Resources National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee.

It was the Antiquities Act that gave President Bill Clinton the ability to create of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996, which set aside nearly 2 million acres in southern Utah as protected wilderness.

That surprise declaration still stings and is a fulcrum of resentment for many state elected leaders and county commissioners in Utah, who say they were given no voice in a "sweeping" declaration that stripped away livelihoods and local land use decisions.

"I am sure they (the GOP delegation) are just not trusting enough in light of what Clinton did on the Grand Staircase and the shenanigans" of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar with Secretarial Order No. 3310, said San Juan County Commission Chairman Bruce Adams.

Salazar's order, announced in late December, directed the Bureau of Land Management to re-inventory federal lands for potential wilderness characteristics. It, too, brought a cry of protest from Utah's elected officials, including Gov. Gary Herbert, who pushed Salazar to back off the order in favor of a county-by-county approach already under way in several areas of the state.

A quasi report card on such efforts related to potential wilderness compromises will be part of a discussion Wednesday at the Utah Legislature's interim meeting of the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee.

Adams and other commissioners from Piute, Wayne and Emery counties will brief lawmakers on their efforts so far and with an eye toward possibly casting a wider net for legislative support on compromises moving forward.

Emery County Commission Chairman Jeff Horrocks said land-use planning as it relates to wilderness is tough to negotiate, but believes compromise is possible.

"The whole idea is to be able to manage public land in a sensible and responsible way and allow people the right to access lands that are deemed public," Horrocks said.

At the same time, he said possible legislation related to Emery County would reclassify wilderness study areas to actual wilderness with protections.

"The catalyst for beginning this legislation is the premise that there will be wilderness," Horrocks said. "We understand we have land here that is pristine and beautiful and it needs to be protected. But protection does not mean exclusion of the general population."

Those land use planning efforts have been spurred in part by the shadow of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument creation, and stoked of late by Secretarial Order No. 3310.

Although that so-called wild lands policy was subsequently defunded with the congressional passage of the Continuing Budget Resolution, Salazar responded Friday by asking lawmakers themselves to come up with a list of potential wilderness areas.

In the letter, Salazar said his agency would identify a list of "crown jewel" public lands the department believes are worthy of protection and submit that for consideration in October. At the same time, he asked for Congressional input.

The tug-of-war between wilderness protection and public access has thrown many Western states under the spotlight as Salazar says he is working to undo years of arbitrary policies under the George W. Bush administration. Alleging those policies allowed the energy industry unfettered access, Salazar has made it a central part of his agenda to re-inventory those lands for potential protection.

Such a top-down approach has not set well with the GOP delegation, Utah's rural county commissioners or Herbert.

All look to the example of the Washington County Lands Bill, passed by Congress in 2009, and fueled by a wide range of support.

Sponsored by Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, and co-sponsored by Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, the land act set aside wilderness protections that grew out of local support and compromises with environmental groups.

With Bennett's defeat at the state GOP convention in 2010, county commissions working on potential wilderness designations have been left in somewhat of a lurch, watching their progress stumble in light of having someone take up the sword on their behalf.

E-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com

Twitter: amyjoi16

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