SALT LAKE CITY — The elected leaders of seven rural Utah counties came together Friday to reiterate their support for the Public Lands Initiative process involving proposed land uses for 18 million acres.
Commissioners from Carbon, Duchesne, Emery, Grand, San Juan, Summit and Uintah counties met at the Utah State Capitol in a demonstration of faith in the public lands planning bill being shepherded by Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah.
"We have had numerous meetings with special interest groups and we have reached a consensus that is somewhere in the middle," said Uintah County Commissioner Mark Raymond.
Raymond added that if elected leaders had been asked five years ago if they would support the creation of any more wilderness areas, the answer would have been a "flat out" no.
"But as we have worked with these special interest groups, we have recognized their passion to protect certain lands," he said.
None of the commissioners said the draft discussion bill released by the congressmen in January is perfect. Leaders in Summit and Grand counties, for example, say changes are necessary.
Everyone, however, said the draft bill — which has come under vehement criticism by multiple environmental groups — strikes a compromise that recognizes the tenets of multiple use that include conservation of high-value landscapes, outdoor recreation, grazing and resource extraction.
"We have some concerns with the draft," said Grand County Councilman Lynn Jackson. "Some of our recommendations were followed and some were not. It is the nature of compromise. No one is ever going to get everything they want."
Critics like the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance say the "wilderness" areas in the lands proposal are in name only because they would allow present-day uses to continue such as grazing or helicopters. They assert the bill, too, tips too heavily in favor of industries like oil and gas producers or potash miners and gives away thousands of miles of trails and two-tracks in dispute to counties.
Rural leaders insisted Friday they want to stick with the imperfect process because it was built on the backs and voices of hundreds of local residents who not only yearn for certainty in land uses but want to see protections in place for landscapes.
"Over the years there has been a lot of work that has taken place, a lot of compromise and a lot of give and take," said Rebecca Benally, a Navajo tribal member who is on the San Juan County Commission.
The public lands bill or 'Grand Bargain' proposed by Bishop and Chaffetz was carved out after more than three years and thousands of meetings and hundreds of field trips. It calls for the creation of a new national monument in Utah, but in dinosaur country, not the Bears Ears in San Juan County like a coalition of tribes are pushing for.
Benally said local Navajo don't want a monument designation for the sacred area because it would restrict Native American access and activities and ignore their desires voiced in the Public Lands Initiative process. The draft legislation sets up a National Conservation Area to protect Bears Ears.
"It will be the right decision for generations to come," she said, adding that the Public Lands Initiative process was tough and complex, involving more than 60 proposals.
"It’s like trying to push through mud. But how it is possible is we hold hands and push each other along and try to complete this journey," she said.
County leaders, too, bristled at the accusation by some critics who assert that because the draft bill grew out of a locally driven process it caves in to local economics for some at the expense of preserving scenic landscapes for all.
"This is the land I go out and recreate it in, the land our neighbors go out and recreate it in. We camp, we hunt, we fish," said Carbon County Commissioner Casey Hopes. "The people in our community do not want to see these things destroyed or taken away."
Chaffetz made a quick appearance at the conference and thanked leaders for sticking with the land planning effort.
"We are trying to do the right thing at the full political spectrum by having the maximum amount of people involved," he said. "And keep in mind — this is just seven counties in a state with 29 counties. Certainly we can come to fair, balanced resolution."
Leaders say they are hopeful they can continue to work on ironing out the conflicts and come to agreement among interested parties where the public lands bill has shortfalls.
"In order for the Public Lands Initiative to be acceptable to us there will need to be broad consensus in the bill," said Chris Robinson, vice chairman of the Summit County Council. "That being said, there is really a great opportunity — and hopefully it is not too late — if all the stakeholders could come together where a compromise could be wrought and this could live up to its name of the Grand Bargain."