Utah’s ‘Grand Bargain’ for public lands enters phase three

Bishop pushes what may be the West’s biggest reshuffle of the land checkerboard.


In February 2013, Ashley Korenblat got a letter in the mail from Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican known as one of the nation’s biggest opponents of new wilderness designations and other public land protections. At the time, Bishop and the now-retired Doc Hastings, R-Washington, were the gatekeepers through which every public land bill considered by Congress had to pass, and the pair were notorious in conservation circles for watering down or just plain ignoring dozens of measures that came their way. 

That’s why Korenblat — a longtime mountain bike advocate who runs Public Land Solutions, a Moab-based nonprofit that advocates for recreation planning — was surprised to receive a letter in which Bishop proposed a truce: “I believe Utah is ready to move away from the tired arguments of the past,” he wrote to environmental groups, mountain bikers, off-roaders, energy producers and everyone in between. “We have a window of opportunity to end the gridlock.” Bishop’s solution, which Greg Hanscom wrote about for HCN in 2013, was to think of wilderness-quality lands as “currency” that could be used to bargain for development elsewhere.

Bishop’s first order of business was to ask county officials across Utah to submit proposals about how to best manage the public lands within their borders. The hope was that locally-crafted agreements — swapping development here for wilderness there, human-powered recreation here for motorized recreation there — would help mitigate the lawsuits and bitter political fights that have long marred Utah’s canyon country, as well as prevent President Obama from declaring broad swaths of the state off-limits through national monument designation. Officially, Bishop called the idea his Public Lands Initiative. Colloquially, it became known as the Grand Bargain. 

Everyone involved was optimistic. “In some places, you see these bills and ask yourself, ‘What’s the threat?’” says Korenblat. “In this place, there truly is a threat in the form of energy development that we need to do some zoning for. To me, the fact that the need is real gives me hope that this’ll pass.”

Yet for a while, it looked like the Grand Bargain might fall victim to Western politics as usual. Deadlines came and went, and counties remained locked in the same tired battles. Wayne County dropped out of negotiations. A sparsely-populated corner of northeastern Utah called Daggett County was briefly touted as a “model for the nation,” after it became the first to submit an agreement, but then the commissioners who drafted the plan were voted out of office and their replacements reneged. Things were not looking good. 

But Bishop remained patient. Now, more than two years after sending the letter, his efforts are paying off. San Juan and Duchesne counties have jumped on-board and are working on proposals. Emery, Summit and Uintah counties have either submitted or are close to submitting proposals. And on April 10, the Grand Bargain got a big boost when Grand County, Utah, submitted its proposal. 

Grand County surrounds Arches National Park and the Moab area, spanning 3,694 square miles of mountain-biking, climbing, backpacking, ATVing, desert rat paradise. It’s also one of the most hotly contested parts of the state: Though its economy over the last 30 years has largely shifted from resource extraction to recreation, the county currently has almost no designated wilderness and some 800,000 acres of land open to oil and gas leasing. If a deal can be struck here, where old-school, conservative Utah butts up against more liberal newcomers, then perhaps a Grand Bargain for the rest of the state — and even elsewhere in the West — is also possible.

So what’s in store for Grand County’s famed red rock landscapes? The final package calls for the creation of up to 514,000 acres of wilderness, mostly in the Book Cliffs area, which county council member Chris Baird calls “one of the best examples of what Utah looked like before it was settled by Europeans.” (The final amount of wilderness depends on land swaps with the state. Areas near the Book Cliffs, in Uintah County, could be opened to limited drilling in exchange for wilderness protection in Desolation Canyon.) 

Grand County also requests the creation of a 159,000-acre National Conservation Area in its southeastern corner; Wild and Scenic River suitability on the Dolores, Green and Colorado rivers; and a 2,900 acre expansion of Arches National Park. Offroad vehicle groups successfully fought for a zero net loss deal, so for each mile of off-road vehicle trail closed, another will be opened elsewhere. The plan doesn’t call for specific zoning for new oil and gas development, but any acreage not protected for recreation or conservation would be potentially available for drilling, in addition to some 30,000 acres of tar sands development. (Some recreation areas will also be available for energy development.) 

Altogether, the proposal conserves around 60 percent of the land once slated for protection in America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act. But it doesn’t please everybody. Three out of seven county council members voted against it, and Scott Groene, of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, says the outcome favors off-road vehicles over hikers and wildlife. Labyrinth Canyon, a remote canyon popular with multi-day river runners that Groene, Baird and Korenblat all hoped would be protected as wilderness, remains a point of contention. The plan calls for the benches above the canyon to remain available to energy developers, while canoeists and off roaders will continue to share the canyon itself (though motorized users will be shut out during peak river-running season). 

Grand County, Utah's public lands proposal would expand Arches National Park and create more than 500,000 acres of additional wilderness.

Plus, the recommendation is simply that. The ball is now in Bishop’s court, and he’s faced with the unenviable task of wrangling agreements from the remaining counties and molding them into a single, passable bill. Phase One of the Public Lands Initiative — convincing stakeholders to participate — is done. Phase Two — collecting county-crafted agreements — is nearing completion.

Now, the delegation is about to enter the third phase — “where we take a bit more control,” says Fred Ferguson, Bishop’s former legislative director and current chief of staff for Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. As Ashley Korenblat explains it, “The counties don’t vote on the bill. Yes, we need their input, but this is federal land and it’s going to be decided in a U.S. Congress.” If there are places where local consensus can’t be reached, Bishop and the rest of the Utah delegation will take matters into their own hands.

In his new role chairing the House Natural Resource Committee in a Republican-controlled Congress, Bishop is in a strong position to pass a bill. And though some conservationists quietly question whether the Congressman — who has publicly supported efforts to force the federal government to transfer its land to western states — will be as open to new wilderness designations as he claims to be, no one is willing to say anything that may jeopardize what’s slowly, painstakingly becoming the biggest reshuffling of the public lands checkerboard that the West has ever seen. As SUWA’s Groene succinctly puts it, “the punchline is still coming.” 

Krista Langlois is a correspondent at High Country News. 

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