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
 

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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.

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