New route to end Utah's wilderness stalemate

Can one of the West's most anti-federal lands lawmakers broker a mega-wilderness deal in the Beehive state?

  • The proposed Indian Creek Wilderness, on the east side of Canyonlands National Park, where San Juan County has proposed a new ATV right of way.

    James W. Kay
  • Utah Rep. Rob Bishop displays a map showing federal land ownership, during a 2012 news conference at the Utah State Capitol to laud the Legislature for its effort to take control of millions of acres of federal lands. Sen. Orrin Hatch looks on.

    Steve Griffin/Salt Lake Tribune
  • Hiking in the proposed White River Wilderness.

    Ray Bloxham/SUWA
  • An Anadarko drill rig in the Greater Natural Buttes area of the Uintah Basin.

    Anadarko Petroleum Co.
  • Off-road enthusiasts gather at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City in 2011 for the Take Back Utah rally, where Gov. Gary Herbert called for renewed vigor in the fight to keep broad access to Utah's public lands.

    Jeffrey D. Allred/Deseret News
  • Dust rises near Factory Butte, an area just outside the San Rafael Swell that's a favorite of off-roaders and that SUWA and others hope to get designated as wilderness.

    Ray Bloxham/SUWA
  • Houses creep into the foothills around St. George, Utah. Washington County commissioners used wilderness lands as a bargaining chip to win more ground for subdivisions and shopping malls.

    George Frey/Bloomberg via Getty Images
  • Canyoneering in White Canyon, a proposed wilderness area in the San Juan-Greater Canyonlands part of eastern Utah.

    James W. Kay

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But if companies are going to invest in this kind of development, Braxton says, they need some assurance that they're not going to be held up or locked out. "If you could increase the probability of getting a lease and not have somebody say, 'We're going to make a monument out of it, or a wilderness area,' I think you could actually do some investing in that."

A county-level wilderness deal like Washington County's just wouldn't work here, though. The Uintah Basin is carved up among at least three counties, and combined they don't hold enough wilderness "currency" to buy the kind of access Bishop and his industry friends are seeking. Thus, the regional approach: Expand the bargaining table to include wild lands south of the basin, such as Canyonlands, and maybe you have enough to trade with.

Of course, there are more than two players at this table. Any discussion of the future of wilderness and energy in Utah must include a whole range of stakeholders, from state officials and land managers to county commissioners and everyday citizens, who have a wide range of interests in the public lands. No surprise, then, that this process is taking a little longer than Bishop anticipated.

By late May, Bishop's staff reported that they'd held 160 meetings with various interest groups and county, state and federal officials, including newly minted Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. Their list of stakeholder groups has swelled into the 60s; they've opened the discussions to include more parties, brought in Utah's other Republican congressmen, Chris Stewart and Jason Chaffetz, and moved their input deadline to July 10.

Bishop's team is planning field trips in August and September to get stakeholders out on the ground. After that, details get murky, but at some point this fall or winter, they'll need to start drawing lines on maps and getting down to the difficult business of negotiating boundaries. So far, there has been little communication between the players, but the game chips are beginning to pile up.

What do the various interests want? The state government, for its part, wants to resolve longstanding issues with school trust lands. The trust lands, given to Western states by the federal government to generate revenue for the state's schools, are scattered throughout Utah. The agency that oversees them, the State of Utah Institutional Trust Lands Administration, has opened many of these parcels to energy development, and sold off others. But some of the land remains inaccessible, landlocked in a sea of federal land, and the state would love to trade those parcels out for acres that can be easily drilled or mined.

County commissioners are looking for their own land swaps to make way for development, and the kind of certainty that Lowell Braxton talks about. They are also demanding permanent rights of way across federal lands -- access routes for industry and recreation.

Hikers, mountain bikers, motorized recreationists and sportsmen -- and the increasingly vocal companies that supply them with high-tech toys -- want some assurance that they will retain unfettered access for their various pursuits. The muscle-powered recreation crowd, led by the Outdoor Industry Association and its nonprofit affiliate, the Conservation Alliance, has become an aggressive wilderness supporter.

Off-road vehicle riders, meanwhile, want "regulatory security," says Brian Hawthorne, public-lands policy director for the BlueRibbon Coalition, which represents that constituency. "We just got these new management plans (on BLM lands). Now to start a new planning process based on these new wilderness designations, national conservation areas, maybe a national monument -- there's no way." That said, Hawthorne acknowledges that there are areas in eastern Utah that merit wilderness protection.

It's incredibly complex, but what begins to emerge is a picture of a grand bargain that would protect some of Utah's most spectacular and fought-over wild lands in return for land trades that would allow for mining or other economic development, and potentially much larger-scale energy development in the Uintah Basin. It's certainly not what Utah's environmentalists have been fantasizing about these past three decades, but if Bishop can convince counties to offer up sufficient wilderness, it just might be enough to make a deal.