Rob Bishop's long-awaited 'grand bargain' for Utah public lands

After decades of stalemate, the new bill gets mixed reactions.


For the past three years, conservation groups held out hope that Republican Rep. Rob Bishop would protect some of Utah’s most stunning and vulnerable red rock landscapes in exchange for oil and gas drilling, economic development and motorized use elsewhere. Some were skeptical: Even as Bishop touted a balanced approach for his “grand bargain,” he actively supported other efforts to transfer public lands to state control and gut the Land and Water Conservation Fund. But no one wanted to jeopardize what was shaping up to be the biggest public lands compromise the West has seen in decades.

This week, however, many in the conservation community lost faith. On Jan. 20, Bishop, chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, and Utah Republican Reps. Jason Chaffetz and Chris Stewart unveiled a draft of their Utah Public Lands Initiative Act. As promised, the bill addresses longstanding land-use issues in eastern Utah. It 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 River on the Dolores, Colorado and Green rivers. It also expedites oil and gas drilling in certain designated areas, expands motorized use and protects or expands grazing, among dozens of other measures.  

A draft of the "Utah Public Lands Initiative Act" would expand Arches National Park by 19,255 acres, and make dozens of other changes.

But while industry groups so far seem to support the bill, environmentalists largely oppose it — in part because of numerous loopholes they say make the new protections even weaker than the status quo. Tim Peterson of the Grand Canyon Trust says that to call it a “disappointment would be a dramatic understatement,” while The Wilderness Society called the legislation “a missed opportunity.” The Sierra Club, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Center for Western Priorities also came out against the legislation as written. 

The letdown was a long time coming. In 2013, Bishop wrote to dozens of public land users, calling for an end to the stalemate that’s plagued eastern Utah for decades. Instead of blocking wilderness bills, Bishop said he was willing to negotiate; to think of wild lands as “currency” that could be used to bargain for development elsewhere. 

First, he and Chaffetz wanted on-the-ground consensus from nine counties, with input from tribes, mountain bikers, oil and gas companies, environmentalists, motorized users and others. As stakeholders pored over maps and argued over prized landscapes, deadlines came and went. Two counties dropped out of negotiations. The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition said they felt their voices weren’t being heard and dropped out as well.

Bishop and Chaffetz warned that not everyone would be happy with the final result. And indeed, while some environmental groups quickly launched a media blitz to disparage the legislation, others were more diplomatic. The Pew Charitable Trusts and Trout Unlimited both have concerns, but seem cautiously optimistic that they can be worked out. And 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 in Utah.”

Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs at Western Energy Alliance, said on Twitter that environmental groups simply weren’t willing to compromise. She wondered: Was 4 million acres of wilderness not enough? Energy producers didn’t get everything they wanted either, but Sgamma says they’re willing to support the final effort as the result of hard-won local consensus.

Fred Ferguson, chief of staff for Rep. Chaffetz, encourages anyone with complaints to immediately submit them in writing. While he believes the bill is fair and balanced, he emphasizes that it’s still a draft. “The door is open for another round of changes,” he says. 

If that’s true, a number of environmentalists’ concerns could be resolved. But in a news conference on Wednesday, Bishop reportedly dismissed those concerns as “crap.” 

Keep an eye on future issues of High Country News for more details on what the Public Lands Initiative means for eastern Utah. You can also read the full text of the bill and check out maps here

Krista Langlois is a correspondent with High Country News.  

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