Remember Rep. Rob Bishop’s Eastern Utah public lands initiative, unveiled nearly two years ago and a work-in-progress during current county-by-county discussions? It’s expected in final-draft form later this summer and likely to be introduced to Congress early next year.
The public lands initiative proposes solutions for some 18 million acres in the extreme eastern part of Utah, with possible wilderness designations reaching 2 million acres and creating well-defined areas for recreation, oil and gas development, mining interests, potash extraction and more.
To someone living on the East Coast, “public lands” means scenically stunning national parks like Yellowstone or one of Utah’s five own “Arches-to-Zion” gem destinations. To a westerner, the “public lands” phrase may simply conjure up open areas filled with rocks, cliffs, canyons, sagebrush and opportunity.
Taking in a vista of a public-lands area might bring a diversity of prospective uses from a variety of individuals — one may see scenic areas needing protection, another may see potential gas or mineral exploration, another may see livestock-grazing opportunities, and yet another may see a possible patchwork of hiking, biking and ATV trails.
Dealing with the public means dealing with multiple definitions, perspectives and opinions — as well as expectations.
One way of accommodating such multiple expectations in public lands policy has been to think in terms of multiple use — especially for BLM lands. Multiple use may suggest “more” use, which in turn may suggest “better.” But multiple use is inherently uncertain and unstable. What public lands policy could benefit from is certainty from a process that identifies the “best” uses for those lands.
And that is precisely what Bishop’s effort aims to do.
It’s a collective and cooperative effort by the myriad of stakeholders — from environmentalists to developers, ranchers to recreationalists, and government entities to Native American tribes — to have say and sway in determining locations and allowance, protections and privileges on the public lands before the federal government comes sweeping in and make a decision for them. A major fear is having a specific area receive presidential protection, which leaves most stakeholders out of the loop.
Just this week, that specter was raised, as 14 U.S. senators – none from Utah – called on President Obama to use the 1906 Antiquities Act to create a new national monument in southeastern Utah. All it takes is a president’s signature, and a big chunk of land could be taken out of the discussion.
The initiative is creating desired land-designation swaps between stakeholders, where a consensus results in certain areas getting a cultural or wilderness nod, while others are deemed for development.
The process means each side can gain something, rather than raising the threat of losing everything. It’s better to have some input, some control, rather than nothing at all.
Bishop’s staff is working on individual public lands management proposals with each of seven eastern Utah counties — Daggett, Uintah, Carbon, Emery, Grand, Wayne and San Juan — to project the best compromise of wilderness, oil and gas, mining and recreation interest. In the end, all seven could be part of the final initiative package, or just a handful.
Counties differ as to where they are in the process. Emery County is done, while Grand County is still seeing the give-and-take play out. July discussions in Moab resulted in current projections of 390,000 acres of wilderness — that’s considerably more than the county commissioners’ May target of 251,000 acres and well under the 850,000 acres of BLM land in the county as eyed by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance for the America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act.
“We recognize every interest will need to make concessions if there is to be an agreement,” said SUWA’ staff attorney Neal Clark to the Moab Sun Times.
Besides the current cooperation and collaboration, the future success of the public lands initiative can result in an infrastructure that better manages areas and puts more funding towards specifically identified areas. Also, the agreed-upon designations allow for a greater certainty for management and control, as well as a greater opportunity to expand once state and local governments are in charge.
The public lands initiative has been an interesting, lengthy process to watch take place. Hopefully, the process concludes with impactful, long-term results – a shared sense of compromise and satisfaction that the collective public lands in eastern Utah are being put to either best use or best care.