SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said he believes he can deliver a "better product" for Utah through his public lands initiative than President Barack Obama can create through a national monument designation.
It's a plan he said he's shared, at least in its conceptual form, with leaders of the Department of the Interior in the past month and senior advisers to the president three weeks ago, urging them to let the process play out without bringing the Antiquities Act into the equation.
The effort is to create a compromise reasonably in managing public lands in several eastern Utah counties, including spaces for designated wilderness, conservation, recreation, resource extraction and a national monument.
"We have made it very clear because we have shown maps to the White House as well: 'This is what we intend to do. We can create more certainty as well as conservation than you can ever do with your monument process,'" Bishop said in an interview Thursday with the editorial board of Deseret Media Companies. "They also know if they go ahead with this monument, everything here is screwed up."
But Interior Secretary Sally Jewell a week earlier told the board that details of the initiative have yet to be seen, despite several requests, and that she doesn't control the president's pen when it comes to another monument designation in Utah.
"I have met with Congressman Bishop on this a couple of times. We've asked for detail because we have no detail," Jewell said. "Once we see the bill, we'll be able to provide input on how we can help get it across the finish line or what concerns we might have. But we actually haven't seen anything tangible."
Three separate efforts are playing out in Washington, D.C.: Bishop and his public lands initiative; Secretary Jewell and her effort to manage federal lands by recommending protections for key areas and species; and Obama, who has designated 19 national monuments as president, including three last month.
With Obama's second term nearing completion, the fate of Utah's public lands appears to be coming to a head in September, when Bishop is expected to present formal lands initiative legislation and Jewell's team has a chance to weigh in on its implications.
The "Grand Bargain," as it is commonly known, is now three years in the making and well past its original delivery date of March 27. Bishop said he expects legislative counsel will be finished drafting language for the bill in time to bring it to the House floor early next month.
While Jewell insists new monument designations aren't done under the "cloak of darkness," some fear the clock is ticking before the president, with the stroke of a pen, derails years of negotiations toward a multiple-use solution and, in its place, establishes a locally unpopular alternative with a legacy in mind.
Phil Lyman, chairman of the San Juan County Commission, said the county has already worked with numerous groups to find a local solution to protecting an area known as the Bears Ears, which encompasses 1.9 million acres that tribal leaders say need further protection.
The public lands initiative wasn't the county's first choice, Lyman said, but it has involved more notice and public input than a monument designation by Obama would.
"I try to stay focused on things that we can affect, and a national monument really doesn't seem like it's something that we have much control over because it's such a unilateral executive action," Lyman said. "If they want to call it a national monument, the county is not going to have a voice in that.
"We'd prefer to work with Congress," he said.
Bishop said he's shared maps with Jewell and the Council on Environmental Quality, which advises the president, showing tentative acreages for designations proposed by the public lands initiative headed by him and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. Attempts to reach Brian Deese, senior adviser to the president on climate, conservation and energy, were unsuccessful.
The plan includes conservation areas and designated wilderness, an equal amount of land "guaranteed for recreation, as well as areas for oil and gas development, Bishop said. He said the seven counties in eastern Utah collectively asked for roughly 1.8 million acres of wilderness while environmental groups pushed for about 5 million acres of wilderness for the same area./p>
"What we will come up with is a compromise and something that I think splits it fairly nicely down the middle," he said.
The plan also calls for a national monument designation independent of the Antiquities Act.
"We'll do it the right way in Utah," he said. "Obviously, we take a lot longer with that; it's one of the negatives with Congress. But at least when I do the (initiative), I can tell people (that) people have had input and we have done it the right way."
He said it won't be a perfect result, but "everyone will win something," including the ability to plan ahead.
"We're trying to provide certainty so that the counties, as well as businesses know what will be able to be expected in the future and the rules will not change," he said. "County officials need to know how they can zone for the future, and a business, if it wants to invest, needs to know where they can actually do that type of investment. Certainty becomes a significant issue."
What's still uncertain, however, is when language and acreages in the bill will be finalized and how the package will be received by executive leadership. It's also unclear how it will compete with asks from tribal leaders, who Jewell said have expressed concerns to her and made suggestions for the Bears Ears.
"That's not uncommon," Jewell said. "We get a lot of designations that occur because of the interest in the local community. In some way or another, these lands are special and they want further protection."
Last week, leaders of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition sent a letter to Jewell countering a request from Utah's congressional delegation and state leaders to leave the Antiquities Act out of the process.
"Despite more than two years of dialogue with local stakeholders, we are concerned that the Public Lands Initiative Process and San Juan County have thus far failed to reach out to, consult and respond to feedback from Tribes within or outside Utah," the letter states.
There's also reason for the president not to consult the Interior Department in designating a monument because doing so would trigger the National Environmental Policy Act, which would require a lengthy public input process, according to Bishop. Acting on his own through the Antiquities Act, on the other hand, could avoid stakeholder input and speed up the matter.
But for the public lands bill to pass, Bishop said the initiative must be absent any looming threat from the Antiquities Act. He pointed to similar initiatives, such as the Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness project that Congress approved last week, as examples of successful collaboration between local entities and lawmakers.
"We have shown you, we can do it. Congress can do this job. Give us a chance to do it," he said. "If the Antiquities Act does not come off the table in these areas where we have made this deal, there is not going to be a deal. Period."
Lyman said county officials, environmental groups, industries and others have gained some level of unity by working toward a solution they hope is in the best interest of county residents and resources.
"One thing that has really been satisfying, I think that everybody who earnestly participated in this lands advisory council really gained an appreciation for each other and our perspective," Lyman said. "It's important to all of us."
Bishop said based on previous encounters with executive leadership, he's confident the public lands initiative, whenever the details are released, will gain the support of the Interior department and the Council on Environmental Quality.
"Everyone will get something they dislike in here. But I think we can move it and then take it to the Senate and then to the White House and say, 'Look, we have spent a lot of time, we've had a lot of input, we've done it the right way,'" Bishop said. "They have been very supportive, positive and encouraging of us to continue on. That's why I think we'll be successful."
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