Bishop’s ‘Grand Bargain’ in Utah is no deal, say enviros

The much-anticipated land-use plan has ramped up the tensions it promised to defuse.

 

Before it twists into Canyonlands National Park, Utah’s Green River slices a serpentine, red-walled gash through Colorado Plateau sandstone. From the air, the landscape looks alive, a geologic taproot branching out into ever-smaller side canyons. Floating through it, John Wesley Powell christened the canyon “Labyrinth.”

Today, Labyrinth Canyon is battle-scarred, like hundreds of other publicly owned lands in eastern Utah. River runners and environmental groups want it protected as wilderness. Ranchers want secure grazing rights. Oil and gas companies want to drill the benches overlooking the canyon, and off-roaders want clear access to it.

For decades, environmentalists’ efforts to preserve Labyrinth and other contested landscapes were thwarted by pro-industry congressmen like Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee. And Bishop and others’ efforts to bring more oil and gas jobs to rural counties were likewise derailed by litigious greens. Nobody was getting ahead.

The Bowknot Bend of the Green River in Labyrinth Canyon, Utah, where seven river miles make a U-turn. The Utah Public Lands Initiative designates wilderness around the canyon, but also allows for motorized use and energy development nearby.

So in 2013, Bishop proposed a truce. Instead of blocking wilderness bills, he offered to negotiate — to use wilderness as “currency” to bargain for development elsewhere. Bishop and fellow Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz reached out to local and national environmental groups, mountain bikers, outdoor leadership schools, ATVers, tribes, ranchers, oil and gas companies and county commissioners, hoping to find consensus.

But as stakeholders pored over maps, deadlines came and went. Two out of nine counties dropped out of the process. A coalition of five tribes advocating for a 1.9 million-acre national monument in southeastern Utah felt its voice wasn’t being heard and walked away as well. Meanwhile, as Bishop made headlines for supporting efforts to transfer public lands to state control and gut the Land and Water Conservation Fund, environmentalists grew increasingly skeptical of his intentions. Still, none wanted to jeopardize what seemed poised to become the biggest public-lands compromise the West had seen in decades.

On Jan. 20, Bishop and Chaffetz finally unveiled a draft of their legislation.  (See graphic below.) As promised, the Utah Public Lands Initiative Act proposes to address a number of longstanding issues. The draft 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 rivers. It also transfers some federal lands to the state, creates designated “energy planning areas” on BLM land, where development will be the priority; preserves motorized use and grazing on many public lands; and paves the way for tar sands mining in northeastern Utah.

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.” The BlueRibbon Coalition, an off-roading advocacy group, says its members have mixed opinions of the bill. But many environmental groups feel betrayed. After three years of working in good faith with Bishop, they say the new bill is worse than the status quo. “I think it’s safe to say that hope is lost,” says Neal Clark, a field attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

At the root of environmentalists’ misgivings is the way Bishop’s bill defines “wilderness.” They say the language is riddled with loopholes that permit activities usually prohibited in wilderness, like allowing chainsaws and using motorized equipment to build new water-storage facilities. It also denies land managers the authority to reduce livestock numbers in case of drought or other negative impacts, and lets ranchers drive ATVs to feed their cattle. And it gives the state free rein to conduct predator control — like shooting coyotes by helicopter.

Labyrinth Canyon would receive a one-mile wilderness buffer on either side of the Green River. Motorized use would continue just outside the boundary, and oil and gas leasing adjacent to side canyons could increase. Depending on how you look at it, either everybody wins, or nobody does. The way Clark sees it, “It’s wilderness in name only.”

Fred Ferguson, chief of staff for Rep. Chaffetz, counters that the language is modeled after existing wilderness bills, including 2014’s popular Hermosa Creek bill in southwest Colorado. But SUWA, along with the Grand Canyon Trust, Natural Resources Defense Council, The Wilderness Society and the Center for Western Priorities, claim the proposed loopholes are unprecedented. Other groups, including Pew Charitable Trusts and Trout Unlimited, have concerns but seem cautiously optimistic that they can be addressed.

Ferguson emphasizes that this is only a draft, and the door is still open for changes. But after a press conference, Bishop didn’t seem particularly amenable; he reportedly dismissed environmentalists’ concerns as “crap.”

And while Bishop and Chaffetz claim the bill reflects the needs of local users, Grand County councilman Chris Baird says that’s not necessarily true. After debates that nearly tore communities apart, Grand County voted down a highway that would connect the Book Cliffs’ proposed tar sands mines to Interstate 70. That highway, though, is included in Bishop’s draft as a “public utility corridor.”

There’s one last sticking point that might doom Utah’s “grand bargain.” Should Bishop’s legislation pass Congress, it could die on the president’s desk. That’s because the Utah delegation insists on including a provision limiting the Antiquities Act, a century-old conservation tool that allows presidents to create national monuments by executive order. For the Obama administration, kneecapping the Antiquities Act is likely grounds for a veto.

Meanwhile, conservationists are already scrambling to prevent the legislation from reaching the president. Instead of putting out the fires of contention in eastern Utah, Bishop may have only fanned the flames.

High Country News Classifieds
  • COMMUNICATIONS COORDINATOR
    Introduction: Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization with offices located in Kanab and Escalante, Utah. We are committed to the conservation...
  • CARETAKER
    2.0 acre homestead needing year-round caretaker in NE Oregon. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    For more information visit www. wyofile.com/careers/
  • THRIVING LOCAL HEALTH FOOD STORE FOR SALE
    Turn-key business opportunity. Successful well established business with room to grow. Excellent highway visibility.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    For more information, visit www.wyofile.com/careers/
  • SONORAN INSTITUTE, CEO
    Chief Executive Officer Tucson, Arizona ABOUT SONORAN INSTITUTE Since 1990, the Sonoran Institute has brought together diverse interests to successfully forge effective and enduring conservation...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a high-impact, nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 27-year legacy using...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Position Summary Join our Team at the New Mexico Land Conservancy! We're seeking a Project Manager who will work to protect land and water across...
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • DIRECTOR OF PRODUCT AND MARKETING
    High Country News seeks a Director of Product and Marketing to join our senior team during an exciting chapter of innovation and growth. This individual...
  • WILDLIFE HAVEN
    Beautiful acreage with Teton Creek flowing through it. Springs and ponds, lots of trees, moose and deer. Property has barn. Easy access. approx. 33 acres.
  • ARIZONA CONSERVATION CORPS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Arizona Conservation Corps is seeking a Program Director in Flagstaff or Tucson
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...