SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. Rob Bishop's much-awaited legislation promoted as the panacea to the divisive public land conflicts on 18 million acres in Utah remains under construction, months after he promised maps and language to thousands of interested parties.
Not to worry, the Utah Republican assures.
"My sooner has turned into later. My first effort is to do it the right way, and if that takes longer, I am sorry," said Bishop, who is chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources.
But in the midst of delays and promises, anxiety over a large swath of public lands in Utah continues to grow, especially in light of a renewed push for President Barack Obama to declare a new monument and questions raised by skeptics wondering if Bishop can pull it off.
With fear that this administration — or the next — will make use of the Antiquities Act and tie up millions of acres of Utah land in a state already dominated by federal land ownership, people are checking the calendar, holding their breath and urging Bishop to quite simply, get it done.
"We've been wanting to see something since March, but we've not seen it yet," said Emery County Public Lands coordinator Ray Petersen."Through all of this, we will participate as long as it appears to be viable and appears it is going to work."
Bishop, in a recent telephone interview from Washington, D.C., promises the wait will be worth it, even it stretches several more weeks or longer.
"The bill is going to be exciting. People will win and people will lose. They have to be willing to accept that fact," he said.
Bishop's so-called "Grand Bargain," has been in the development stages for nearly three years. Its aim is to carve out land use designations in places where there has been inherent conflict over logging, oil and gas development, grazing and other industry activity and includes provisions for the establishment of new wilderness areas. It also includes protections for high-value recreation destinations.
The bill promises victory and some defeat to all the parties at the negotiating table in the eight impacted counties. It also includes a prohibition against any future presidential monument designation via use of the Antiquities Act — a component Bishop insists on being in the bill.
Some critics say prohibiting the presidential use of the Antiquities Act in eastern Utah under the Bishop bill could be a deal killer.
"Any legislation with an Antiquities Act exemption will fail, as a president won't sign legislation that relinquishes this long-standing executive branch authority," said Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
Bishop said the whole point of his Public Lands Initiative process is to provide certainty — guarantees about acceptable land uses that county leaders, recreationists, industry and conservationists can count on in the years to come. That certainty can be annihilated with the swipe of a presidential pen via monument creation, so Bishop questioned the point of eking out such hard-fought compromises, only to have them effortlessly undone.
Ashley Korenblat, owner of Moab-based Western Spirit Cycling and heavily steeped in promoting the region's recreation economy, has been a key player in Bishop's land initiative.
She said she is optimistic that the public lands initiative can be successful, if it does not get derailed by ideology.
"The reality is there is a deal and all the pieces of the deal are on the table," she said. "The question is whether ideology will blow up the deal."
Korenblat added that if the bill is everything she think it will be, the need for the Antiquities Act in this area of the state goes away.
"That is why if we get a bill that makes sense that covers enough acreage it is super unlikely there would be a monument designation anyway."
Korenblat said she believes the beauty of the deal is that everyone will get something they need.
The School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, with much of its land tied up in checkerboard parcels not readily accessible, will be able to consolidate some of its holdings in exchange for trading land to the Bureau of Land Management that has recreation or scenic values.
"It makes sense to get them out of some places where they can't make money for the schoolchildren and into some places that could," she said.
John Andrews, associate director and chief legal counsel for the trust lands administration, said that as an example, the organization would give up lands to the Bureau of Land Management in the Cedar Mesa area and in close proximity to Arches and Canyonlands national parks. In exchange, SITLA would receive parcels with revenue potential near the city of Green River and in Lisbon Valley in San Juan County.
"I think as we look at it, it is good to provide some finality about what should be in a conservation designation and what would not," he said. "We have devoted a significant portion of our time to try to come up with something that will work for the conservation community as well as our trust beneficiaries."
Korenblat said the recreation community stands to achieve significant progress via the bill as well, which is critical for both outdoor enthusiasts and state and local coffers.
"Recreation stands a lot to gain as well because the Mighty Five is not enough," she said. "Nobody spends their entire vacation within the boundaries of a park."
Petersen said he and his colleagues are anxious to see what Bishop is able to deliver.
"We, along with others, are anxious to see the language," he said. "With that being said, the folks in Washington are the experts on this, and so we are relying on them to do their job."
Bishop said he's tweaking some of the language in the bill because it was too vague. The ambiguities would give too much discretion to regulatory agencies and create room for conflict, he said.
"I want to tighten it up as much as possible," he said. "I want to write it so that five years from now we are not engaged in a lot of lawsuits because we don't know what the words mean. There is a lot of latitude in it for personal interpretation, and if I let that stand, all of I have done is postpone lawsuits in the short-term and guarantee them in the long run."
Bishop specifically mentioned recent resource management plans released by the BLM in the wake of the Washington County Lands Bill signed into law in 2009. The plans are the next step in carrying forward land management for the southern Utah region.
However, the Washington County Commission has objected strongly to the BLM's interpretation of the law and says the agency is ignoring compromises negotiated in good faith on a number of issues, including a northern transportation route and land that is now being proposed to be managed for its wilderness characteristics.
For that reason, Bishop says he wants to shore up the imprecise language in his legislation.
"Especially with what is happening in Washington County I think we need to have that kind of security for local leaders."
Korenblat, even as time has drawn on over the Bishop bill, is not frustrated by the wait.
Over the years, she has worked on 30 lands bills around the country — and this one is complicated because it covers such a big area, she said.
"What the Bishop bill does is move to a 21st century plan for Utah's public lands," she said, "But it comes back to the pieces. A lot of different groups would get a lot out of this bill; I really think it is a grand bargain. The real question is if we are going to let the extremists run the show. By definition, the extremists don't want to cut a deal. They want the extreme."