SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. Rob Bishop's Public Lands Initiative bill was unveiled Wednesday with provisions to expand Arches National Park, create a new national monument in Utah and establish designated recreation and energy zones to provide "certainty" among Utah's public land users.
What remains to be seen, however, is if Bishop and his co-sponsor, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, can harness the maelstrom of criticism from environmental groups and garner enough support to move his proposal forward to a place called success.
Bishop, R-Utah, said he is not deterred by those lining up against his bill and will continue over the next few weeks to work with both critics and supporters to tweak the measure before it is introduced in Congress. There may be modifications that help quell some of the hue from detractors, he added.
"If they shoot it down they shoot it down," he said Wednesday after a press conference unveiling his 63-page bill. "We did the best we could do. But what it does mean is that any kind of future positions are going to be much more radical, much more confrontational, much more litigious than what we were attempting to do in solving these problems."
Bishop's bill, crafted in concert with Chaffetz, R-Utah, promises new conservation areas, new wilderness designations, protection for prime hunting and angling areas, as well as energy and recreation zones.
Among its many provisions, built over three years of meetings with conservationists, sportsmen, county and Native American leaders, energy and mining industry representatives, recreationists and agricultural interests, are:
- 40 new wilderness areas in Utah covering 2.2 million acres
- Recreation zones in Grand and San Juan counties of 375,000 acres
- Expedited mineral leasing and development on certain public lands
- Expansion of Arches National Park to the north to protect Delicate Arch and possibly improve congestion
- A new national monument at the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry
- 4 National Conservation Areas — including Bears Ears in San Juan County, Book Cliffs in Emery County and White River in Uintah County
The bill has drawn criticism from some Native American tribes because it falls short of creating a Bears Ears National Monument and consolidates mineral resources currently managed by the Bureau of Land Management by proposing to trade them to the Utah Schools and Institutional Trust Lands Administration.
"If Congressman Bishop and Chaffetz did not want to fix land management problems on Indian lands, they should have left our lands out of their bill," said a statement issued by the Ute Tribal Business Committee. "Instead, the bill proposes to take Indian lands and resources to fix Utah's problems."
Bishop asserts the measure is the largest conservation lands bill in the history of the lower 48 states and proposes to protect or safeguard 4.3 million acres.
Groups like the Wilderness Society, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Grand Canyon Trust say the bill does just the opposite.
"We are disappointed. We think it is a missed opportunity, and there are certainly opportunities for common ground in Utah," said Paul Spitler, director of wilderness campaigns for the Wilderness Society. "This proposed draft goes far beyond what we and other stakeholders can agree to and will have detrimental effects on public lands in Utah."
Spitler was especially critical of the energy zones provided for in the bill and management options in wilderness and conservation designations that "undermine their conservation purposes."
Under Bishop's bill, he directs the Interior and Agriculture departments to manage the 40 areas under the provisions of the Wilderness Act, but with multiple exceptions that allow mechanized equipment or aircraft for wildfire management, continued grazing for those with current allotments, commercial outfitting activities and state wildlife functions that include maintenance of current and future support buildings.
"The draft PLI is an un-wilderness bill," said Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "Effectively less wilderness would be protected in Utah if this bill is passed than what is currently managed for the public. The wilderness it designates includes unprecedented loopholes and caveats, like enshrining grazing."
Bishop dismissed the groups' complaints.
"It's crap. There is no value to it at all," he said. "Wilderness becomes wilderness. And it is a designation of something that was never officially done as wilderness. We are ending the potential debate about that."
He added the criticisms over "loopholes" confounds him.
"That is bizarre, too, because the same language that we have in our bill was in other bills that have been done in the past, too. That is a ridiculous argument. There is no merit whatsoever."
Bishop, who is chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, has been working on the Public Lands Initiative proposal for three years, sifting through dozens of detailed proposals for various land uses in Carbon, Duchesne, Emery, Grand, San Juan, Summit and Uintah counties covering 18 million acres. Bishop's primer on the legislation says there were more than 1,200 meetings and 65 detailed land proposals that went into building the comprehensive public lands package.
The land uses tackled in the legislation include grazing, oil and gas development, recreation, such as off-highway trails and mountain climbing, and outdoor sporting activities, such as big-game hunting and angling, as well as recreation zones.
Bishop's bill designates a little over a million acres for recreation and energy, allowing for energy development in areas not already protected or in conservation designations under his measure. It also expedite the federal process for permits and protests, narrowing the window for such procedures to 60 days.
The energy provision brought a nod of support from the Western Energy Alliance, which represents more than 450 independent oil and gas companies in the West.
"We applaud the concept of energy planning areas that are primarily focused on energy development and understand that in return, other areas will be designated for conservation," said Kathleen Sgamma, vice president for government and public affairs at Western Energy Alliance, adding that the group is concerned that so many areas are being placed off-limits.
Andy Rasmussen, Utah coordinator for Trout Unlimited Sportsmen Conservation Project, said his organization is encouraged by the proposed creation of a national first — the Book Cliffs National Conservation Area of 42,352 acres, which would be managed for sportsmen qualities with input from a public advisory council.
"That is a new federal designation, and if we can get something that works moving forward, that will provide a real nice precedent throughout the West," he said. "The top management priority would be the management of fish and wildlife and sportsmen's access. That is a good deal."
Rasmussen added the group has concerns over some of the language but is optimistic the collaboration and compromise he said played out in the process will continue.
Bishop has said all along that no one will be completely happy with his bill — that everyone will get something and no one will get everything they asked for.
On Wednesday, he and Chaffetz reiterated that point.
"There is something for everyone to like and something for everyone to hate," Bishop said. "But if you look at the totality of what we are doing, it is so positive, it is moving everything forward, there is value in that."
Environmental groups and Native American tribes have been strident in their criticism of the measure because of its failure to designate a new national monument for Bears Ears in San Juan County.
The congressman pushed for the conservation designation for Bears Ears rather than what was sought by a coalition of Native American tribes because he said it offers greater flexibility for multiple uses, including access by tribes to participate in sacred ceremonies and gather firewood and herbs.
"The Bears Ears National Conservation Area was an idea that actually came from the people who actually live in the county. It is far more benefical to have a conservation area if you are going to go about tribal practices and activities than if you were to make some kind of monument."
The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, which lobbied in Washington, D.C., for monument designation, pulled out of the Public Lands Initiative talks in December, citing lack of communication and not being taken seriously by Utah's congressional delegation.
"The Bears Ears designation is more than a million acres. It is a huge swath of land," Chaffetz said. "I take great exception to the idea that, even the suggestion that we have not heard or spent time addressing concerns from Native Americans."
Chaffetz added he'd personally met with the president of the Navajo Nation and had meetings with representatives as recently as December.
The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition issued a statement Wednesday describing the conservation area component as "woefully inadequate" and a confirmation of "inequitable" treatment over the last three years.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert called for support of the Bishop proposal, saying public lands contention has been a part of Utah history for more than 100 years and what Bishop and Chaffetz have done should be commended.
"They have brought people together in a signficant way. There will be some who criticize because they don't get everything they want," Herbert said. "Let's have a positive attitude to say this will work. There are some ways to tweak it, maybe make it better. But I think the congressmen have done a great job in finding the sweet spot in something that is common sense."
The legislation attempts to solve long-standing disputes involving public land issues that have dogged agencies for decades, if not more than a century.
The School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, according to the bill, gets to trade out lands and consolidate its holdings, which are scattered in square-mile sections granted at statehood in 1896. SITLA officials have said more than 300,000 acres will be put into one block in an exchange that will trade the revenue-building agency into more optimal lands for energy development and out of acreage valued for its recreation or scenic qualities.
Cabin owners in a dispute with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation over shoreline property adjacent to Scofield Reservoir are promised relief in Bishop's proposal through a provision that gives them title to their property as long as they absolve the federal government of any flooding liability.
There are a number of other components — an expansion of Arches National Park to protect Delicate Arch, the creation of a 93-mile Red Rock Country OHV trail and an expansion of Goblin Valley State Park by 10,000 acres. It also sets up a co-managed area in the San Rafael Swell area of 156,000 acres to be run by the BLM and the state to better manage the visitor experience and protect natural resources in the heavily visited region.
Chaffetz and Bishop urged the public and other groups to take time to read the bill and explore its provisions as they weigh its impact on public lands in Utah.
"So I know there are these radical environmentalists who say it is dead on arrival and we will never do it. Shame on them. Shame on them," Chaffetz said. "We have come far, far beyond what I thought we could actually do. I think it is a great opportunity for the state. I think it is a great opportunity for our country. It would be a crying shame if there were just a national monument designation. That is not the way to do things. It sells our state short."