SALT LAKE CITY — Six amendments to gut many provisions of the Public Lands Initiative by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, failed before the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources Thursday, including a measure to remove a national conservation area on the Bears Ears region.
The committee, instead, advanced HR5780 on a 21-13 vote, with ranking Democrat Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona, reserving the right to record dissenting views.
Grijalva offered an amendment to exclude the Bears Ears and Indian Creek national conservation areas from the bill, citing its failure to provide "meaningful" consultation with Native American tribes and its exclusion of 500,000 acres in the region from protection.
"Without their support it is far from a grand bargain," he said. "In the context of Bears Ears, its shortcomings are not fixable. My amendment is an olive branch to the tribes who feel slighted by this legislation."
The amendment failed, and Bishop reiterated his intent to add language to bolster Native American co-management in the Bears Ears conservation area.
"I have every intention of making substantive amendments that will include a tribal coordination component," he said, but added he is waiting on Department of Interior language for that provision.
Afterward, Bishop released a statement on his Public Lands Initiative, which he said will come up for a floor vote after Congress returns from the election break.
“We have a bill that is truly locally driven and solves problems. Historic land disputes and scarce revenue for our children’s education will soon be a mark of the past for our state," he said. "The bill will provide land use certainty, proving that conservation and economic development can co-exist to build a new future of prosperity for our children. This is a good bill developed by Utahns for Utah."
But multiple environmental groups, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and his Democratic colleagues on the committee have harsh words for the measure, which they accuse of being a "giveaway" and massive land grab that sets back conservation for years.
"I personally don't believe this is the right balance," said Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif. "The wilderness areas and national conservation areas as outlined in the bill are riddled with loopholes."
Lowenthal is the House sponsor of the Red Rock Wilderness Act, which seeks to protect 9.2 million acres of public land in southern Utah.
Critics complain that the 4.6 million acres of land set aside for conservation under Bishop's bill fall under designations with too many exceptions that run contrary to the Wilderness Act and lack prohibitions that accompany other national conservation areas.
Bishop's measure in some areas of the state allows energy development to continue, keeps grazing at current levels unless federal agencies can prove the allotments should be reduced, allows motorized recreation if cultural or natural resources are not in jeopardy and provides access for the establishment of wildlife water features such as guzzlers.
"The wilderness provisions in the Public Lands Initiative could have been a good step forward, but instead they undermine the Wilderness Act," Grijalva said.
Bishop said the "exceptions" criticized by opponents are already on the books in other public lands bills passed for multiple areas of the country.
"Apparently these strange things I am putting in there, every single one of them has a precedent and has been passed, usually by Senate Democrats."
Bishop's measure covers 18 million acres in seven eastern counties in Utah and is the result of three years' worth of meetings on land use designations that attempt to solve the contentious fights over public lands.
The bill has been touted as a locally driven compromise that carves out protections for some of Utah's most spectacular landscapes, while fostering recreational access and energy development.
Supporters want the Obama administration to give the Public Lands Initiative a chance to succeed, rather than moving forward with a national monument of 1.9 million acres in the Bears Ears region.
Bishop has said all along the bill would make no one completely happy because it would not deliver everything groups want.
Even Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., was somewhat critical of the bill, but for different reasons, citing the giveaway for wilderness and designations of hundreds of miles of river as wild and scenic, classifications that he says have been disastrous in his state.
"Part of the problem in this discussion is that it follows a very familiar pattern, that, oh, these compromises are just not quite the right balance," he said. "We work year after year with local groups, arrive at a consensus and then are sued by outside groups. It is never quite enough. We have played this Lucy and the football game for so many years."