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?

  • The proposed Indian Creek Wilderness, on the east side of Canyonlands National Park, where San Juan County has proposed a new ATV right of way.

    James W. Kay
  • Utah Rep. Rob Bishop displays a map showing federal land ownership, during a 2012 news conference at the Utah State Capitol to laud the Legislature for its effort to take control of millions of acres of federal lands. Sen. Orrin Hatch looks on.

    Steve Griffin/Salt Lake Tribune
  • Hiking in the proposed White River Wilderness.

    Ray Bloxham/SUWA
  • An Anadarko drill rig in the Greater Natural Buttes area of the Uintah Basin.

    Anadarko Petroleum Co.
  • Off-road enthusiasts gather at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City in 2011 for the Take Back Utah rally, where Gov. Gary Herbert called for renewed vigor in the fight to keep broad access to Utah's public lands.

    Jeffrey D. Allred/Deseret News
  • Dust rises near Factory Butte, an area just outside the San Rafael Swell that's a favorite of off-roaders and that SUWA and others hope to get designated as wilderness.

    Ray Bloxham/SUWA
  • Houses creep into the foothills around St. George, Utah. Washington County commissioners used wilderness lands as a bargaining chip to win more ground for subdivisions and shopping malls.

    George Frey/Bloomberg via Getty Images
  • Canyoneering in White Canyon, a proposed wilderness area in the San Juan-Greater Canyonlands part of eastern Utah.

    James W. Kay

Page 3

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."

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