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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?


On Feb. 15, 2013, Congressman Rob Bishop, a Republican from a deeply conservative stretch of northern Utah, sent a letter to groups representing environmentalists, oil and gas companies, off-road vehicle users and others, announcing his plan to end the state's decades-long wilderness war.

The missive didn't specify what was at stake -- millions of acres of jaw-dropping red-rock desert, lands that hold riches in oil and gas, and that, if opened to off-road riding, could be a motorhead's Disneyland -- but the battle-hardened recipients needed no reminder. Conservationists have long wanted these lands protected forever, but dozens of wilderness bills have gone down in flames, thanks to people like Bishop, who blocked any legislation that would "lock up" Western land.

Now, Bishop claimed he wanted to turn over a new leaf. "I believe Utah is ready to move away from the tired arguments of the past," he wrote. "We have a window of opportunity to end the gridlock and bring resolution to some of the most challenging land disputes in the state."

He asked each group to list its priorities for eastern Utah's public lands -- wilderness protection, energy development and everything in between. His plan wouldn't cover the entire state, but it would include some of Utah's most spectacular and contested landscapes, including the area around Canyonlands National Park, the San Rafael Swell, the Book Cliffs and Desolation Canyon -- 5.5 million acres that conservationists believe are worthy of wilderness protection, plus the energy-rich Uintah Basin.

"I look forward to working with you as we move into the next phase of this critically important endeavor," Bishop concluded. "I ask that you please provide your list of priorities via email … no later than March 15, 2013."

One month to lay the groundwork for resolving a war that had been raging for a generation, from Washington, D.C., to the Statehouse in Salt Lake City, inside county commission chambers and out on the sand and slickrock.

To many of its recipients, the letter seemed to drop out of the sky. The rhetorical battle between conservationists and state leaders, and between Utah's elected officials and the federal government, had recently boiled over for the umpteenth time. Led by chest-thumping states-rights advocate Gov. Gary Herbert, Utah was suing the feds for control over 19,000 miles of rights of way across public lands -- a blatant frontal attack on proposals to protect those lands as wilderness. If that wasn't enough, Herbert and the state Legislature were pouring millions of tax dollars into a dubious campaign to take control of 22 million acres of federal land, arguing that it had been stolen from the state, which they insisted could do a better job of managing it anyway.

Conservationists, in turn, had taken their cause to a friendly Interior Department, asking officials to provide temporary protection for a 1.4 million-acre bulwark of mountains, sandstone spires and river canyons surrounding Canyonlands National Park, and to initiate a public process to explore long-term protection. Internet chat boards lit up with chatter about the "Greater Canyonlands conspiracy" and bitter reminders of the last "federal land grab" in Utah in 1996, when President Clinton designated the 1.7 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a move that still chafes many locals.

The Outdoor Industry Association and more than 100 gear companies threw gas on the flames when they sent President Obama a letter urging him to use his executive powers to protect the area as Greater Canyonlands National Monument. In Moab, furious off-road vehicle enthusiasts and self-proclaimed Sagebrush Rebels organized a boycott of businesses that supported the monument. The backlash was so vitriolic, says one local mountain-bike tour operator, that "there were a couple of weeks there when I was worried about my son wearing his Patagonia coat to school."

Bishop had made no secret about where he stood. When an Obama administration plan to provide temporary protection for the state's wild lands came to light in late 2010, he howled that it was the work of "far left extremists who oppose the multiple uses of our nation's public lands." A longtime critic of federal environmental laws, and federal power in general, he told The Salt Lake Tribune that conservationists and the outdoor industry were "trying to do an end-run around what is good for Utah."

But here he was, just a few months later, holding out an olive branch, promising to put an end to the fighting.

If you want to understand the fragile détente currently being negotiated in Utah, take a trip to St. George, in the southwest corner of the state. It wasn't all that long ago that the town was a sleepy Mormon backwater -- "Utah's Dixie," as locals called it, because the area's earliest Mormon pioneers, lead by Robert Dockery Covington, a Southern slave owner, hoped to grow cotton here.

The old town center has survived -- the original Mormon temple, hewn from tawny native sandstone, the wide, well-tended green, and Thomas Judd's general store, established in 1911, where you can still buy Judd's famous breadsticks with cheese sauce. But in the late 1990s and early 2000s, St. George and the rest of Washington County exploded. For a while, it was among the fastest growing counties in the U.S., as Vegas-style suburban development sprawled into the desert east, south and west of town.

Today, the county's population has topped 140,000. The old town center is surrounded by a sea of clay-tile roofs tucked behind iron gates flanked with burbling fountains -- housing developments with names like Sedona Hills, Artesia Terrace and Lakota Ridge.

But north of all this, flame-colored cliffs rise like a dragon's back -- and much of that land is protected as wilderness. To the northwest, Red Mountain, a buttress of sandstone the color of dried blood, rises 1,500 feet straight out of the subdivisions. To the northeast, Cottonwood Canyon snakes through domes of Navajo sandstone. These wilderness areas are bound together by the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, a 45,000-acre swath of land that is jointly managed by federal, state and local governments to protect the threatened Mojave Desert tortoise and other wildlife.

The deal that protected that land was born in the early 2000s, largely out of frustration. For 20 years, conservationists, led by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), had fought to pass a mammoth statewide wilderness bill. They'd scoured the state for lands worth protecting, ratcheting up their proposal to cover 9.4 million acres and building a national following in the process. But without support from Utah's congressional delegation, the proposal foundered time and again. In the absence of a resolution, the players resolutely stuck to their roles: SUWA fought to protect wild areas with lawsuits and executive action from allies in the White House, while anti-wilderness interests punched back with claims that the counties held rights of way across many roadless areas.

Even as Utah was mired in a stalemate, however, other Western states were negotiating deals over smaller-scale, locally generated wilderness bills. Utah's then-governor, Olene Walker, took notice and approached the state's county commissions, asking for volunteers for a first Utah attempt. Washington County jumped.

What convinced the county commissioners, traditionally hostile to wilderness protection, to come to the table? It was all that growth. Inspired by a similar deal in Nevada, they realized that they could use wilderness as a bargaining chip to win more ground for subdivisions and shopping malls.

But the path forward was anything but smooth. The original Washington County lands bill, championed by Republican Sen. Bob Bennett and introduced in the House by Utah's token Democrat, Jim Matheson, was a developer's dream. It would have protected approximately 220,000 acres of wilderness, including much of what was proposed for the county by SUWA. In return, roughly 24,000 acres of federal lands could be sold off for development. The bill would have also laid the groundwork for a new highway that would cut through endangered desert tortoise habitat, connecting St. George's booming western suburbs to Interstate 15. And 8 percent of the proceeds from land sales would have gone to the local water conservancy district to fund a long-dreamed-of pipeline to pull water from Lake Powell.

The bill outraged locals who dreaded more uncontrolled sprawl as well as environmentalists and their friends in Congress, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "Reid wouldn't let it happen," says Alan Gardner, a rancher and longtime county commissioner who has sold ground to developers, with obvious bitterness. "What was good for Nevada couldn't be good for anywhere else."

It would be more than a year before Bennett and Matheson would take their bill back to Washington, D.C. In that time, Washington County would go through a major strategic planning process called Vision Dixie, which involved extensive public input and revealed that most locals supported managed growth and opposed selling off federal lands. Bennett also met with conservation groups and made a series of concessions to win their support.

By the time it was reintroduced in 2008, the bill included more than 260,000 acres of wilderness, a substantial increase from the original, as well as "wild and scenic" designation for 165 miles of the Virgin River in and around Zion National Park, and the creation of two new national conservation areas. Rights of way for the highway and Lake Powell pipeline were dropped and federal land sales were cut to approximately 9,000 acres.

The new bill won the support of national conservation groups, including The Wilderness Society, The Nature Conservancy and the National Parks Conservation Association, but SUWA and a local group called Citizens for Dixie's Future still opposed it. It failed a second time, and the county made yet more concessions before it finally passed in 2009 as part of an omnibus lands bill.

Looking back, County Commissioner Gardner has mixed feelings. "Had we ever contemplated the amount of wilderness and some of the boundaries we ended up with, we never would have gotten started," he says. "The big thing the county got was resolution."

Conservationists remain similarly ambivalent: "The outcome of all this was a good wilderness bill," SUWA Executive Director Scott Groene said in a letter published in High Country News. "But the bill wasn't the result of a consensus-based process, and it shouldn't serve as a model."

To date, none of the available 9,000 acres of federal land has been sold: The real estate market imploded just as the bill finally passed. But county officials are optimistic that, once the market rebounds, the land will sell, and St. George will resume expanding.

More than anything, the Washington County deal showed local officials around Utah that wilderness designation could serve as a lever: If they were clever enough, they could use it to pry things out of environmentalists' tight fists.

Rob Bishop is a silver-haired mountain of a man with a self-deprecating sense of humor and a gift for working a conservative crowd into a lather. He has built his career on anti-government, anti-environmentalist bombast, often delivered in the calm tones of a Mormon patriarch.

Aside from a two-year Mormon mission in Germany and his time in D.C., where he has represented Utah's first congressional district since 2002, Bishop has lived in Utah all his life. He resides in Brigham City, a town of 18,000 near the eastern shore of the Great Salt Lake. He and his wife, Jeralynn, have five children: Shule, Jarom, Zenock, Maren and Jashon -- named after people and places in the Book of Mormon.

Bishop taught high school history for more than a decade, something he often mentions in interviews and campaigns, but his main occupation has been politics. He was elected to the state House in 1978 at the age of 27 and rose through the ranks to be that body's speaker, and later, chairman of the Utah Republican Party. In 1992, he co-founded the Western States Coalition, a group of lawmakers, ranchers and Sagebrush Rebels that raised a hue and cry over President Clinton's conservation initiatives.

In D.C., Bishop has been one of the extractive industries' most loyal supporters, sponsoring at least three bills that would require the feds to "more efficiently develop" oil and gas on public lands. Oil and gas interests donated more than $58,000 to his 2012 campaign, more than any other industry, according to the nonprofit Open Secrets.

The League of Conservation Voters, meanwhile, gives Bishop a lifetime score of just 4 percent. He has campaigned to allow Border Patrol agents to drive willy-nilly across fragile desert in pursuit of "bad guys" and "potential terrorists," and supported efforts to weaken the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and other bedrock environmental laws.

Bishop has also pushed legislation that would turn over patches of federal land to the states and supports Utah's efforts to lay claim to most of the 30-plus million acres of federal estate within its borders. At a 2011 energy summit in Uintah County, he held up a map with what looked like a red paint spatter covering roughly a third of the state. "This is the real state of Utah," he said. "Everything that's red is private property. The rest is public property. That's why I want my land back."

Still, Bishop isn't opposed to protecting wilderness when it suits his needs. He sponsored the 2006 bill that created the 100,000-acre Cedar Mountain Wilderness Area in western Utah -- the state's first new wilderness since 1984. The law, which SUWA supported, blocked a proposed rail line that would have carried radioactive waste to a storage site on the Skull Valley Goshute Indian Reservation -- waste that the military believed could have jeopardized activities at a nearby bombing range.

But while wilderness has its uses, there's one thing Bishop simply cannot abide: the Antiquities Act, which Clinton famously used to protect Grand Staircase-Escalante in 1996. Last March, Bishop was one of the few to object to President Obama's creation of four national monuments, including the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in New Mexico, the San Juan Islands National Monument in Washington state, and a monument in Delaware dedicated to Harriet Tubman, who helped escaped slaves make their way north along the Underground Railroad.

"There is a right way to designate federal lands, and there is a wrong way," Bishop told The Washington Post. "Executive fiat is unquestionably the wrong way and is an abuse of executive privilege."

With pressure mounting for Obama to designate a massive new monument in eastern Utah, Bishop has an opportunity to show the president, and the world, what he means by the right way. That, however, requires a dramatic change of tactics. Pulling a line from his history books, Bishop hearkens back to general-turned-president Dwight D. Eisenhower: "Eisenhower used to say, if he had a problem he couldn't solve, he made it bigger."

The same day Bishop sent his letter to stakeholders asking for input on his new wilderness project, he also wrote to commissioners in six eastern Utah counties. This second letter was more persuasive, making the case that it was in the counties' best interest to participate. It was also more frank about the rules of the game.

"Wilderness, or other land designations, can act as a currency," Bishop wrote. "If wilderness is designated in your county, you should receive some specific, tangible benefit for it."

This could be good, he argued, as counties dominated by federal lands could win rights of way for roads, special zones for energy development, or federal acreage for a local park, an airport or other amenities -- if the counties were willing to pay. "The more (wilderness) we're willing to designate," Bishop wrote, "the more we can expect on the other side of the ledger."

But while eastern Utah holds some wilderness gems, none of the communities there are booming the way that St. George was back in the early 2000s. So what, one might ask, are Bishop and the local economic interests really after? In a word: energy.

The Uintah Basin is a wide concavity in the earth that sweeps down from the Uinta Mountains in the northeast corner of Utah. The scattered communities here -- Duchesne, Roosevelt, Vernal, and the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation -- are longtime agricultural centers that have in recent decades been transformed by oil and gas development.

Ten thousand pump jacks and gas wells currently suck liquid and gaseous gold from the ground here. At night, they light up the juniper-dotted hills like bonfires. The industry, which now accounts for roughly 60 percent of the region's economy, wants to drill another 25,000 wells in the near future -- and that's just the beginning. The basin holds enough tar sands, oil shale and shale oil to keep the drill rigs and strip mines cranking for years to come.

"The neat thing about the Uintah Basin from a producer's or a geologist's standpoint is that you've got productive (rock) horizons that are stacked geologically on top of each other," says Lowell Braxton, the Utah representative for the Western Energy Alliance, an industry group. "Right now, we're working in young, shallow formations. But there's Mancos shale underneath that, which has potential as a shale oil producer, and there's potential for gas formations in the sands. And then you can keep going on down. The deepest well in the basin is 18-20,000 feet right now. People aren't drilling that deep, but the infrastructure is there -- the roads, the pipelines -- to get the resource out. Our long-term interest (as an industry) is likely to be in the Uintah Basin."

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.

When asked what's in it for him, Bishop cites the battle fatigue that you hear about from many corners these days: "It's tiresome to always have to fight over these areas."

But Bishop could also earn major political points by providing more funding for state schools and boosting rural economies. "Bishop may not give a hoot about wilderness," says Marcia Argust, policy manager for the Pew Campaign for America's Wilderness, "but he does seem to want to solve this problem for the counties and the schools -- and we're part of the equation."

Perhaps most importantly, Bishop would prove that he is capable of something more than just ranting against the government of which he is a part. The last Congress was the first since the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964 to protect not a single acre of wilderness -- and Bishop is largely responsible for that. He is chairman of the House National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee, the gateway through which any wilderness bill must pass if it wants to see the light of day.

"I am in a position where my committee assignments can do a lot for the state of Utah," Bishop says. "I started thinking that now would be a good time to bring people together. I could say, 'Yeah, I created wilderness, but we created some kind of development at the same time. Everyone got something decent out of it.' "

That could put Bishop in line to become the next chairman of the powerful House Natural Resources Committee, whose current chair, Washington Republican Doc Hastings, has to step down soon due to term limits. And while no one's whispering about it yet, Utah's senior senator, Orrin Hatch, will be 80 next year. Utah will be looking for a new senator in the not-too-distant future, and with a massive wilderness and energy deal in his trophy case, Bishop would be a strong contender.

Bishop says, so far, he's optimistic about the prospects for a grand deal. "And that scares me," he adds. "It's never a done deal until it's actually done."

Scott Groene sits in his office in Moab on a scorching early summer day, the mercury hovering around 106 degrees. Through his window, the executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance can see the sandstone turrets of Arches National Park, the place that, in many ways, sparked the fight to protect Utah's red-rock country and has carried it in the public's imagination all these years.

For several months, Groene has been impossible to reach by phone, emailing that it's too early in the process to know where Bishop's proposal will go, or if it will move at all. But today, he's talkative, upbeat -- still careful with his words, but almost giddy with the scope of the discussions underway.

"It's likely that there's not much we agree with Bishop on in general on public lands," Groene says. "But we worked really well with him on the Cedar Mountains wilderness bill. It intrigues us to see what we can accomplish here."

SUWA has been meeting privately with a coalition of other conservation groups to hash out an offer that they plan to present to Bishop later this summer. Still in draft stages, it includes new wilderness areas on both BLM and Forest Service land, plus new national conservation areas. In return, sources involved with the discussions say they're willing to give Bishop and his allies much of what they want.

In addition to conceding a substantial amount of the land they're now proposing for wilderness, conservationists would cease fighting many of the rights of way on federal lands that counties claim. The groups also seem willing to agree, in principle, to a massive land trade, swapping scattered patches of school-trust lands for drilling and mining ground in the Uintah Basin.

Others have been meeting, too, sketching out their own versions of a deal, but their numbers are less ambitious than the conservation crowd's. Grand County Commissioner Lynn Jackson, a Moab resident, says discussions on the county level have been in the range of 1.5 to 2 million acres of wilderness -- a non-starter for conservationists -- plus a couple of national recreation areas. "To me, as a Westerner, this is the way you do it," Jackson says. "You negotiate, you horse-trade. Everybody gets a piece of the pie. But we're not going to get a bill that makes everybody happy."

If Washington County's wilderness deal is any kind of guide, the negotiating process will be dramatic and filled with land mines. True to form, though the actual work of drawing lines on maps has yet to begin, already both the commissioners and conservationists have nearly stomped away. Environmentalists erupted when yet another letter from Bishop seemed to suggest that he would entertain wilderness designation only for lands officially identified in 1980s surveys as "wilderness study areas." He later explained that this was not the letter's intent, but it raised suspicions that his overtures might just be a ruse to prevent Obama from designating a Greater Canyonlands National Monument.

Conservationists asked Bishop to create a professionally facilitated public process surrounding the proposal, but so far, the dialogue has largely been between Bishop's staff and individual stakeholders, with the extractive industry and county and state officials enjoying the most access to the congressman. "None of the meetings any of us (environmentalists) have ever been involved in have ever gotten serious about talking about places, or gotten stakeholders together to try to work anything out," says Bill Hedden, executive director of the Grand Canyon Trust and a member of SUWA's board of directors. "There has been no process, no negotiation whatsoever to this point."

Local officials, meanwhile, were enraged when Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune came through Moab in June, once again raising the spectre of a national monument.

From the outside, it looked like the nation's biggest environmental group was trying to increase the pressure on counties to cut a deal or suffer the consequences.

"If he was interested in turning up the heat, he sure did that, but he might have just torpedoed the whole process," Jackson says. "We need some assurance out of the White House that if we work on good faith with Rep. Bishop and work something out, they're not going to slap a monument on us, too."

There's no telling what will happen when the four-wheelers get involved, or the local extractive industries, or those Sagebrush Rebels who see any wilderness as a serious threat to their freedom. And even if Bishop is able to convince them all to hammer out a deal, any bill will have to win the support of Utah's other congressional representatives. Will Sen. Mike Lee, a hard-line right-winger who unseated Bennett in the Republican primaries in 2010, agree to a massive wilderness bill on his watch? Will Sen. Hatch, who took a sharp tack to the right during his last primary in order to beat a Tea Party rival, tilt back toward the center and lend his support?

All of these questions still hover in the hot desert air. But despite many misgivings, most of the people who have been privy to the conversation so far express a surprisingly widespread sense of optimism. "We're ready to do something big, we're ready to play, let's do this," says Cody Stewart, Gov. Herbert's energy adviser.

"Sooner is better than later," says Bishop when asked when he'd like to have a bill ready. "We've got a new secretary of Interior coming online. The Interior Department is more receptive to new ideas than they have been. Not to disparage past leadership, but everyone looks at things anew."

On good days, environmentalists are calling this the deal that could protect enough ground that it puts SUWA out of business. "That's always been our goal," Groene says, when the notion is put to him. "It would be a remarkable success.

"I know where the smart money would be on this thing," he adds. "More likely than not, there will be no success. It's just too big and too challenging."

Where's SUWA's money, then? Groene pauses, then replies: "We're willing to spend all of our time and resources working on it. Whether that's a smart bet, that's a different question. But we're in."

Former High Country News editor Greg Hanscom is now a senior editor at Grist.org. A Utah native, he lives in Seattle.

This story was funded with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.