For years, Utah conservationists struggled to protect sensitive environments from four-wheeling, oil and gas and other development – until conservative lawmakers like Republican Rep. Rob Bishop realized that state-held lands with wilderness characteristics could be used to bargain for mineral-rich, federally owned tracts. In 2013, Bishop began negotiating a compromise with wilderness advocates, off-roaders and oil executives, but old grudges and political stalemates slowed progress (Red Rock Resolution? HCN, 7/22/13).
Now, the first part of a potentially much larger land swap has cleared both chambers of Congress and will likely soon become law. Sponsored by two pro-industry Utah Republicans – Bishop and Sen. Orrin Hatch – and heralded by environmental groups like The Wilderness Society, the bill will help protect 20,000 acres of ecologically and culturally important Uintah and Ouray Reservation lands in Desolation Canyon from proposed oil and gas development. In exchange, Utah's "school trust" fund will get federal oil and gas rights on less sensitive parts of the reservation, with revenue benefitting state schools and the Ute Tribe.