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Steve Baker, Deseret News archives
A hiker goes through the San Rafael Swell, in Emery County.

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

He said, "There have been times...that there was one side or the other who thought they had the guaranteed, safe upper hand as it was and if they stood pat, and stuck with the status quo, they would come out OK." He said now the threat of losing something provides a healthy détente.

This lands process, as a concept, has forged like positions for two unlikely bedfellows — Emery County and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA).

Representatives of both say they prefer a wilderness bill to a monument designation.

"The impetus for us doing this is to have some local control for what gets designated as wilderness," said Ray Petersen, Emery County's public lands coordinator. "SUWA's Red Rock Wilderness deal or a monument designation is totally out of control, so if we can maintain some input, and some control in this process, why would we not want to do that?"

And from Scott Groene, SUWA's executive director: "I would rather we reach agreement on wilderness legislation. It would affect a much larger amount of wilderness and there could be greater certainty with legislation. We could resolve more issues."

Working the deal

Bishop is working with each of the seven counties to come up with individual public lands management proposals that contemplate wilderness designations and zones where oil and gas development, mining and recreation occur. It could be that all seven counties are part of the final package. It could be that all are not.

"All of them are just looking for certainty," Bishop said, who is still months out from having maps that detail what that proposal ultimately will look like.

Emery County is farther along in the process than the others, having submitted its plan to Bishop two years ago.

"We have negotiated a compromise over time, since this latest effort, going back a couple of decades," Petersen said.

When the Bureau of Land Management abolished cross-country motorized travel and instead designated only specific routes where it was allowed, Petersen said it was a rancorous and dramatic change for residents.

"It was the most painful process, a big change. For some of the users, it was nearly the end of the world to have to be confined to ride on trails."

The decision closed hundreds of miles of trails and was not well received, Petersen said. But within a couple of years the locals decided they could live with it.

"It took a lot of time to go through that. The end result is that we have better management of the resources."

Park expansion?

He said that same idea is at play with the idea of expanding Goblin Valley State Park by 136,000 acres. Such a move involves a transfer of BLM-managed lands and could be accomplished through Bishop's bill.

"The east side of those canyons, day in and day out, are the busiest slots on the swell. It is the farthest away from the BLM's Price field office and it really needs management now; the BLM acknowledges that."

So how is it accomplished?

"My advice is to start 15 years ago," Petersen said. "It takes time. You have to be committed to it. You cannot do it quickly and it is not going to be easy. You have to commit to collaborate, understanding that you are not going to get everything you want."

Groene said his group is waiting to see what the individual county plans look like and what ultimately is laid out on the bargaining table.

"We have said all along the only way we will reach agreement is everyone will have to make concessions, including ourselves."

Reaching agreement on a sensitive environmental issue in which industry and advocates have to compromise is not without precedent in Utah.

SUWA, the state of Utah, Bill Barrett Corp., and a host of others forged concessions in a programmatic agreement in 2010 hailed by then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar as historic for what it gave up, and for what it allowed in the Nine Mile Canyon area.

Then, as in the process unfolding now, no one got what they wanted, but they got enough.

Petersen said ideally, public lands planning involves looking beyond one's own hood ornament as you're traveling toward your destination.

"There is plenty of resource, but every resource will not be used for every reason," Petersen said. "The big picture is we have to make land use decisions about what is best for the land, and sometimes that is not what is best for me, and I am not always going to get what I want. "

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