Before it twists into Canyonlands National Park, Utah’s Green River slices a serpentine, red-walled gash through Colorado Plateau sandstone. From the air, the landscape looks alive, a geologic taproot branching out into ever-smaller side canyons. Floating through it, John Wesley Powell christened the canyon “Labyrinth.”
Today, Labyrinth Canyon is battle-scarred, like hundreds of other publicly owned lands in eastern Utah. River runners and environmental groups want it protected as wilderness. Ranchers want secure grazing rights. Oil and gas companies want to drill the benches overlooking the canyon, and off-roaders want clear access to it.
For decades, environmentalists’ efforts to preserve Labyrinth and other contested landscapes were thwarted by pro-industry congressmen like Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee. And Bishop and others’ efforts to bring more oil and gas jobs to rural counties were likewise derailed by litigious greens. Nobody was getting ahead.
So in 2013, Bishop proposed a truce. Instead of blocking wilderness bills, he offered to negotiate — to use wilderness as “currency” to bargain for development elsewhere. Bishop and fellow Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz reached out to local and national environmental groups, mountain bikers, outdoor leadership schools, ATVers, tribes, ranchers, oil and gas companies and county commissioners, hoping to find consensus.
But as stakeholders pored over maps, deadlines came and went. Two out of nine counties dropped out of the process. A coalition of five tribes advocating for a 1.9 million-acre national monument in southeastern Utah felt its voice wasn’t being heard and walked away as well. Meanwhile, as Bishop made headlines for supporting efforts to transfer public lands to state control and gut the Land and Water Conservation Fund, environmentalists grew increasingly skeptical of his intentions. Still, none wanted to jeopardize what seemed poised to become the biggest public-lands compromise the West had seen in decades.
On Jan. 20, Bishop and Chaffetz finally unveiled a draft of their legislation. (See graphic below.) As promised, the Utah Public Lands Initiative Act proposes to address a number of longstanding issues. The draft expands Arches National Park and designates 4.3 million acres of new wilderness and national conservation areas, as well as 301 miles of wild and scenic rivers. It also transfers some federal lands to the state, creates designated “energy planning areas” on BLM land, where development will be the priority; preserves motorized use and grazing on many public lands; and paves the way for tar sands mining in northeastern Utah.
The Western Energy Alliance, which represents over 450 oil and gas companies, called the bill an “important milestone” that “could help achieve a meaningful resolution to contentious public lands confrontations.” The BlueRibbon Coalition, an off-roading advocacy group, says its members have mixed opinions of the bill. But many environmental groups feel betrayed. After three years of working in good faith with Bishop, they say the new bill is worse than the status quo. “I think it’s safe to say that hope is lost,” says Neal Clark, a field attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
At the root of environmentalists’ misgivings is the way Bishop’s bill defines “wilderness.” They say the language is riddled with loopholes that permit activities usually prohibited in wilderness, like allowing chainsaws and using motorized equipment to build new water-storage facilities. It also denies land managers the authority to reduce livestock numbers in case of drought or other negative impacts, and lets ranchers drive ATVs to feed their cattle. And it gives the state free rein to conduct predator control — like shooting coyotes by helicopter.
Labyrinth Canyon would receive a one-mile wilderness buffer on either side of the Green River. Motorized use would continue just outside the boundary, and oil and gas leasing adjacent to side canyons could increase. Depending on how you look at it, either everybody wins, or nobody does. The way Clark sees it, “It’s wilderness in name only.”
Fred Ferguson, chief of staff for Rep. Chaffetz, counters that the language is modeled after existing wilderness bills, including 2014’s popular Hermosa Creek bill in southwest Colorado. But SUWA, along with the Grand Canyon Trust, Natural Resources Defense Council, The Wilderness Society and the Center for Western Priorities, claim the proposed loopholes are unprecedented. Other groups, including Pew Charitable Trusts and Trout Unlimited, have concerns but seem cautiously optimistic that they can be addressed.
Ferguson emphasizes that this is only a draft, and the door is still open for changes. But after a press conference, Bishop didn’t seem particularly amenable; he reportedly dismissed environmentalists’ concerns as “crap.”
And while Bishop and Chaffetz claim the bill reflects the needs of local users, Grand County councilman Chris Baird says that’s not necessarily true. After debates that nearly tore communities apart, Grand County voted down a highway that would connect the Book Cliffs’ proposed tar sands mines to Interstate 70. That highway, though, is included in Bishop’s draft as a “public utility corridor.”
There’s one last sticking point that might doom Utah’s “grand bargain.” Should Bishop’s legislation pass Congress, it could die on the president’s desk. That’s because the Utah delegation insists on including a provision limiting the Antiquities Act, a century-old conservation tool that allows presidents to create national monuments by executive order. For the Obama administration, kneecapping the Antiquities Act is likely grounds for a veto.
Meanwhile, conservationists are already scrambling to prevent the legislation from reaching the president. Instead of putting out the fires of contention in eastern Utah, Bishop may have only fanned the flames.