The grand compromise: The search for a public lands resolution

Published: Saturday, June 21 2014 2:20 p.m. MDT

Updated: Thursday, Aug. 14 2014 5:42 p.m. MDT

A hiker goes through the San Rafael Swell, in Emery County.

Steve Baker, Deseret News archives

SALT LAKE CITY — Imagine Rob Bishop with his head under the hood of a car and a line of people behind him telling him the best way to fix it.

That's the scenario for the Utah congressman, the "car" in this case the delicate issue of federal lands oversight in Utah, and few would dispute the current system is a junker, rife with lawsuits, stalemates and uncertainty.

Bishop, a Republican, has spent the past 20 months as the fixer mechanic, brokering a public lands initiative process that attempts to meld a legislative solution to land use issues in seven Utah counties.

"Everybody is going to get something, but not everything they demand," he said. "That is the beauty of doing it big."

Bishop's bill will propose solutions for some 18 million acres in the extreme eastern part of Utah, with possible wilderness designations that number in the millions of acres. At the same time, it would carve out certainty for recreationers, the oil and gas industry, coal mining interests, potash extraction and more.

This is no minor tune-up.

Wednesday Bishop met with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell at her request. He said she wanted to know how his "grand bargain" legislative effort was coming along.

"It was positive," he said. "She wanted a quick update of where we were in the process...We did go through in detail over the kind of things we would be putting on the table. She actually seemed very positive about it going forward."

Positive and optimistic

"Positive" is the key word that swirls around any discussions on Bishop's public lands initiative. It is the oil that keeps this engine running, even in the face of such disparate interests.

"It's quite encouraging to see the stakeholders still hitched," said Kim Christy, deputy director of Utah's School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA), which manages lands conveyed at statehood and held in trust for financial benefit of school children.

"I am the first to admit it is a long shot." But it is a shot.

The stakes are high for Utah.

Bishop's bill, which he hopes to ready to be introduced in January, involves land swaps — it could be SITLA's largest in its history — and would mean it could trade out high-value cultural or wilderness quality lands in exchange for acreage with potential for development.

It leaves the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument off the table and it attempts to solve disputes in this swath of Utah that arise over oil and gas development, endangered species, off-roading, grazing and more.

Bishop believes faith in the continuing negotiations is helping to keep a possible monument designation in Utah by President Obama at bay, although no outright promises have been made.

"What they have said is they are positive about the process and as long as we seem to be making progress toward the solution that this would be the preferable solution where everyone is involved, as opposed to the president making a political statement," he said.

Bishop said each side can gain something and the threat of losing everything keeps everyone involved in the process.

"What we are seeing is everyone sees a potential win out of this process and that encourages them to continue on," he said. "It is important to say that unlike maybe a few years ago, when other people were less successful in trying this same kind of stuff, that everyone also views the potential of defeat."

Strange bedfellows

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