Bishop, Chaffetz up the ante with sweeping Utah bill

By Phil Taylor | 07/14/2016 01:13 PM EDT

Two Utah congressman today released a major bill to both conserve and develop millions of acres of public lands in eastern Utah.

The Public Lands Initiative (PLI) by House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R) and Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R) is being touted as an alternative to a bid by American Indians and conservation groups for President Obama to designate a Bears Ears National Monument in Utah’s southeast corner.

In all, the 215-page bill would protect roughly 4.6 million acres in seven eastern Utah counties. It’s a 300,000-acre increase from a draft bill Bishop and Chaffetz unveiled in January and covers a landmass roughly equal to New Jersey.

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The PLI bill would also designate nearly 1.2 million acres for new recreation and economic development opportunities, while giving Utah consolidated ownership of more than 300,000 acres to allow more efficient development like drilling to raise money for education, according to a fact sheet on the bill.

The legislation will be a major talking point in Bluff, Utah, on Saturday, where top Obama administration officials are set to host a public meeting to debate future conservation steps for the region.

Bishop, Chaffetz and their supporters have argued that a legislative solution to Utah’s thorny public lands fights will carry local support and provide lasting, durable protections and development certainty to a much broader swath of the state than would a presidential monument designation.

"The Public Lands Initiative offers the most comprehensive, viable and legal path forward," Chaffetz said in a statement this morning. "This legislation goes beyond conservation. In the case of Bears Ears, it safeguards access of traditional tribal uses and provides a meaningful seat at the table for tribal interests. Let’s give weight to the broad coalition of interests and enable a comprehensive solution to lands disputes that have plagued the West for generations."

The bill drew positive statements — though not outright endorsements — today from the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Nature Conservancy’s Utah state director.

It was also praised by the Western Energy Alliance, the Utah Farm Bureau, off-highway vehicle group Ride with Respect and San Juan County Commissioner Rebecca Benally, a Navajo who has been an outspoken critic of turning Bears Ears into a national monument.

Yet it took fire from several major regional and national environmental groups, including the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Grand Canyon Trust, Wilderness Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, National Parks Conservation Association and Conservation Lands Foundation.

"The proposed legislation fails to protect the imperiled cultural resources of Bears Ears, puts important natural and cultural resources at risk to rampant energy development, and undermines protection for priceless red rock Utah lands," the groups said in a joint statement. "The PLI divests Americans of their shared public lands heritage by granting the state of Utah permitting authority over energy development on federal lands, including mandatory grazing on all public lands in eastern Utah, and handing over valuable public lands and resources to the State."

Key changes have been made to the bill since January.

It includes a "revamped" plan to protect 1.4 million acres of the Bears Ears region. That would include an 856,000-acre Bears Ears National Conservation Area, a 434,000-acre Indian Creek National Conservation Area that would wrap around the eastern border of Canyonlands National Park and a wilderness area.

The revised bill also drops some language on wilderness management that conservation groups found objectionable. Provisions for livestock grazing and insect control would mimic precedents Congress established for recently designated wilderness areas including Pine Forest Range in Nevada, Boulder White-Clouds in Idaho and Hermosa Creek in Colorado, the congressmen said.

While the bill would not place limits on the president’s use of the Antiquities Act in the seven Utah counties, Bishop is advancing a separate bill that would do just that.

Yet it’s unclear whether the stand-alone Antiquities Act bill could pass Congress, given Democrats’ stiff defense of the president’s monument powers.

Conservationists have said blanket restrictions on such designations are a non-starter. But Bishop and Chaffetz have said their constituents need assurance that Obama or a future president cannot tamper with what they argue is a more collaborative solution for Utah’s lands.

Among other changes, the revised PLI bill expands the length of wild and scenic designations for the Colorado, Dolores and Green rivers to 360 miles, an increase of 60 miles over the draft bill.

Large-scale energy zones have been eliminated, according to the congressmen’s fact sheet. "Instead, administrative reforms to the downstream energy permitting process have been included," it says.

More than 1,000 miles of disputed R.S. 2477 roads would be resolved in favor of Utah, it said. Also, Recapture Canyon — the site where San Juan Commissioner Phil Lyman led an illegal all-terrain vehicle ride in violation of the Bureau of Land Management’s prohibition on motorized travel — would be open to "responsible use, consistent with federal archaeological and cultural resources laws," the fact sheet says. The legislation would approve a right-of-way request from San Juan County to reopen the canyon to motorized travel.

More than 80,000 acres of wilderness study areas that BLM has previously identified as having roadless qualities would be "hard released," meaning they could no longer be managed as wilderness.

The new bill will receive intense scrutiny from conservationists and the White House as it considers whether to designate a Bears Ears monument.

Bishop appears intent on giving conservationists a tough choice: Support his bill, which protects far more lands and rivers but contains what conservationists see as poison pills on grazing, logging, mineral development and land transfers, or support a smaller national monument (though one that would still be the largest in history), which would leave much of the management decisions up to Obama and future administrations.

In all, the bill would designate more than 2.1 million acres of wilderness — a higher level of protection than a national monument can afford — making it one of the largest wilderness bills in history.

The Center for Western Priorities today issued a statement chiding Bishop for waiting until the waning months of Congress in an election year to release the bill.

"This draft bill should have been the starting point over 1,000 days ago when the process began," said CWP Executive Director Jennifer Rokala in a statement. "This all raises one big question: Is Congressman Bishop serious about compromise, or running out the clock? Regardless, he is now under serious time pressure."

Rokala said the revised bill still excludes many areas of the Bears Ears region that tribes want protected. Language in the bill to approve San Juan’s proposed right of way through Recapture Canyon "rewards the illegal activities of San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman and puts archaeological sites at risk," CWP said.

CWP said it also objects to bill language granting R.S. 2477 claims in remote areas and assurances for continued grazing in conservation areas.

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