A bill to designate millions of acres of wilderness, create vast motorized recreation areas and expedite the development of oil, gas and minerals in eastern Utah will be formally introduced in the House tomorrow, according to its sponsor.
Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said his Public Lands Initiative legislation has undergone "so many" changes — many at the insistence of conservation groups — since it was introduced in draft form in January.
Bishop urged conservationists at the negotiating table to back the bill. Otherwise it will revert to its earlier form, which was a "good bill," he said.
Bishop said his bill will get a vote this fall.
And he warned the Obama administration against designating a major chunk of lands in his bill as a national monument, a move he said would pull the rug out from his four-year-old, collaborative effort.
"If they do a monument this bill is dead," Bishop said.
Bishop’s draft legislation in January would have protected 4.3 million acres, including 2.2 million acres of wilderness, in seven counties: San Juan, Grand, Emery, Carbon, Uintah, Duchesne and Summit (Greenwire, Jan. 20).
More than 300 miles of the Colorado, Green and Dolores rivers would be protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. It also would designate more than 1 million acres for new recreation and economic development opportunities, namely oil and gas and potash development.
A massive land exchange would give Utah consolidated ownership of 336,000 acres, allowing greater opportunities to raise revenues for schools and other state services.
The draft drew support from local elected officials and the congressional delegation, but strong opposition from conservation groups, who argued it left too much of Utah’s scenic red rock county open for development and contained development loopholes for the lands it did protect.
The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, a five-tribe organization pushing for protections of the Bears Ears region within Bishop’s bill, formally broke from the legislative talks in January and is lobbying President Obama to designate a 1.9-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument.
Bishop’s bill would designate about 1.1 million acres of the Bears Ears region as a national conservation area, leaving more lands available for multiple uses like drilling, mining and motorized recreation.
A handful of top Obama administration officials will descend on Bluff, Utah, on Saturday, to discuss both the PLI and monument proposals.
"It’s frustrating [that the Interior Department] is doing the meeting this week when all the delegation is back here voting," Bishop said. "That is sad."
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) will spearhead a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee oversight field hearing on July 27 in Utah to discuss the impats of monuments on Western Communities. And the Utah delegation intends to convene another hearing in the latter half of August, according to a July 7 letter from Bishop, Lee, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.
Bishop’s committee will hold a hearing on the bill and a markup in September.
The bill will conserve the Bears Ears region, "but it will be done in a way coming up from people at the bottom."
Bishop said he’s working closely with the Pew Charitable Trusts, Nature Conservancy and Friends of Cedar Mesa. "We made some last minute changes for them," he said.
But Bishop slammed the Wilderness Society and Grand Canyon Trust, which he said were "disingenuous in the first place and never seriously intended to be helpful. … [T]hey’re out."
Paul Spitler, director of wilderness campaigns at the Wilderness Society who was a key player in the PLI talks early on, said his organization "provided very clear and specific feedback throughout this process" but felt the input it provided was ignored in Bishop’s draft bill.
The Wilderness Society last Saturday issued a statement calling on Obama to designate a Bears Ears monument, arguing there’s not enough time in the legislative calendar for Bishop’s bill to pass.
"We worked very hard and very diligently to reach agreement and find areas of common ground," Spitler said. But the discussion draft has "numerous poison pills" and didn’t reflect consensus, he said.
"There’s just not enough time left in this Congress to deal with a bill of this magnitude," he said. "Congress is having trouble passing bills naming post offices at this point. These bills take time. Their passage is measured in years, not weeks and months."
A source close to the negotiations said Bishop’s revised bill contains substantive changes strengthening its conservation provisions. For example, provisions in the draft bill that would have allowed limited logging, insect control and grazing infrastructure within wilderness areas have been removed, the source said.
The revised Bears Ears section would protect roughly the same amount of lands, but they would be split into two national conservation areas — Bears Ears and Indian Creek — and managed in slightly different ways, the source said.
It appears unlikely that conservation groups will endorse the revised bill without further changes.
But 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 leaves much of the management decisions up to Obama and future administrations.
Mike Matz, director of U.S. public lands at the Pew Charitable Trusts, said the premise of Bishop’s legislative approach — pairing wilderness and other conservation designations with a broadly supported land exchange between the federal government and Utah — is sound.
"But there are provisions in here and language in here that is of concern," he said. "We want to continue working with them to try to get it through the legislative process in a way that the president would sign it, and it’s not there quite yet."
While Bishop should be able to get his bill through the House, the challenge will be finding the necessary Democratic support to overcome a filibuster threat in the Senate. It’s not clear whether the White House would hold off on declaring a Bears Ears monument beyond Election Day.