Congressman Rob Bishop’s long-awaited Public Lands Initiative is especially disappointing to those who share increasing concern about our failure to take proper care of God’s creation. It’s not hard to look across the magnificent landscapes of Utah and feel awestruck by what God has given us and feel a desire to conserve the land’s health and beauty as good stewards. These lands should remain safe in the public trust for future generations.
Such a guarantee, unfortunately, is not part of Congressman Bishop’s plan. The PLI was advertised as a partnership, a collaborative, good-faith process to provide long-term certainty for the protection and balanced use of Utah’s most precious resource — our bountiful lands. However, the PLI favors fossil fuel interests over all the other stakeholders involved. Five Native American tribes realized this before the rest of us when they left the “collaborative” process in disgust in December.
We have seen more criticism than praise of the proposal from such reputable conservation organizations such as the Grand Canyon Trust, the Center for Western Priorities, Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship (CRS), Backcountry Hunters & Anglers and others. Bishop conveniently dismisses them as the criticisms of “extremists.” Stewardship, we believe, involves helping human well-being but in the broadest sense: working for our material and spiritual health and assisting present and future generations. Extraction for short-term gain at the cost of our health and the health of the earth is no “grand bargain.”
The PLI is motivated by the almost religious fervor for state’s rights that has seized the West. There are certainly good reasons to distrust the federal government, but there is danger too in such categorical trust in the virtues of local control. How can we trust advocates for private and state interests to live up to the high demands of our responsibilities for creation care when they so consistently ignore science or contradict the basic principles of ecological health? The proposed expediting of oil and gas leasing processes would prevent even the most minimal review of environmental impacts or potential destruction of irreplaceable cultural, historic or natural resources. Even in some areas designated as “recreation zones,” the PLI promotes disruptive mineral and energy development.
While Congressman Bishop says he is balancing these reckless development plans with a portion of the bill dedicated to “conservation,” these are designations in name only. The congressman’s definitions of “wilderness,” “national conservation areas” and “national monuments” make unprecedented changes to these protections, allowing grazing to continue in perpetuity and allowing industrial development right up to the edges of “protected” areas, like the Bush administration’s effort to open drilling adjacent to Arches National Park.
“Wilderness Study Areas” are given up for development; according to Congressman Bishop, their virtues have been studied enough. The PLI undermines the integrity of important laws like the Wilderness Act that provide the highest levels of protection to our most treasured places.
In addition to its conservation shortcomings, Congressman Bishop’s proposal deserves special criticism for its determination to give away public lands that belong to all Americans. While the PLI wants to give away hundreds of miles of trails and footpaths and tens of thousands of acres of national public lands to the development interests of the state of Utah, this is neither the wish of the majority of Utahns nor of Americans. These lands should be protected so that all who visit — from both inside and outside of Utah — can experience the beauty of God’s creation.
Let Utahns keep sharing the wonder and awe of creation with future generations and with all Americans. Scrap this bill and come up with a plan that takes seriously our responsibility to reduce our impact on the planet and that values Utah’s lands for their spiritual and not merely their extractive value.
We need a plan that answers the call to be stewards of God's gifts. Congressman Bishop’s PLI is not that plan.
Mitch Hescox is president of the Evangelical Environmental Network and George Handley is author of the memoir, "Home Waters," and a board member of LDS Earth Stewardship.