Utah's public lands 'grand bargain' falls on its face
© Erik Molvar

Three years ago, Rep. Rob BishopRob BishopRepeal of Obama drilling rule stalls in the Senate Congress should stop trying to diminish public lands The Hill's Whip List: 36 GOP no votes on ObamaCare repeal plan MORE (R-Utah) launched a complex effort to resolve public lands and wilderness issues across seven counties in eastern Utah. Committees were formed, some 1,200 meetings occurred and delicate agreements were brokered.

It was off to promising start. But this January, it crashed and burned on takeoff.

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The discussion draft of the bill debuted to blistering condemnation from the two biggest conservation groups in the region the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and the Grand Canyon Trust. A prominent Native American group, the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition (a formal body composed of the Hopi, Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute, Uintah and Ouray Ute, and Zuni tribal governments) sent an open letter to Bishop, stating that the draft legislation was "woefully inadequate to address our needs" and "confirms the inequitable treatment of Tribes over the past three years." Tribal entities have pulled out of the Public Lands Initiative and instead are calling for President Obama to designate their Bears Ears landscape proposal — which contains more than 100,000 cultural sites, including a rich collection of cliff dwellings in the Cedar Mesa area — as a national monument.

How things went so wrong varies from county to county. In sparsely populated Daggett County, commissioners were initially willing to bargain with conservationists. A deal was announced in October 2014, only to be abandoned after an election changed the commission's makeup.

In San Juan County, the commissioners refused to allow major conservation interests to even sit at the table, restricting participation to county residents only (even though these lands are public lands belonging to all Americans). Tribal interests brought forward a proposal for a Bears Ears National Conservation Area to protect Cedar Mesa and other hotspots for cliff dwellings, rock art and archaeological sites, and remarkably this proposal gained majority support in public comments among San Juan County residents. But county commissioners were unwilling to back the will of the majority, and kicked the Bears Ears proposal to the curb.

In Grand County and Summit County, the county councils sent compromise packages up to the congressional delegation. But Bishop had ideas of his own, and substituted his own "solutions" for those of local governments, resulting in the anti-conservation bill he unveiled this January.

The discussion draft that has emerged is chock-full of poison-pill provisions that undermine conservation and doom it straight from the get-go.

The bill creates 2.7 million acres of energy development zones, where fossil fuel development is designated by law as "the highest management priority" of public land — reversing the goals of multiple use management. Contrast that with the 1.7 million acres of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands the bill designates as wilderness. Today, 1.8 million acres of BLM lands are already being managed to wilderness standards, as "natural areas" under BLM land-use plans and as Wilderness Study Areas, so the Bishop bill actually results in a net loss of wilderness protections in eastern Utah. "This is not a lands protection bill," observes David Garbett of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "It's a fossil fuel development bill."

And the Bishop bill creates an entirely new form of quasi-wilderness, a "motorized wilderness" where chainsaws and off-road vehicles are explicitly allowed. This is an unprecedented change that undermines the very point of wilderness, as set forth in the Wilderness Act of 1964: to provide a natural experience that excludes the noises and pollution of the modern world. It's a place to meet nature on its own terms, and find some peace and quiet.

The legislation would also lock in livestock grazing on public lands at or above current numbers. So for those rangelands that are overgrazed today, agencies would not be allowed to reduce the number of cattle. And during severe drought, it would be illegal for range managers to adjust livestock numbers downward. As a federal law, the Bishop bill also trumps the newly minted sage grouse plans, potentially blocking critical habitat protections.

On national forests, the bill opens up protected Roadless Areas to commercial logging. It also eliminates the legal obligation to maintain viable populations of native wildlife on national forest lands. Yes, you read that right: This bill would eliminate federal regulations and make it legal to drive wildlife populations extinct on national forests.

All but two National Conservation Areas in the bill would be managed as motorized recreation areas, prioritizing off-road vehicles over conservation. In addition, between 10,000 and 12,000 miles of "highways" claimed by counties under the obscure (and expired) Revised Statute 2477 would be granted as rights-of-way to the counties for road development. These claims range from real roads to jeep trails to cow paths, and their designation would result in a proliferation of motor vehicles deep in the unspoiled, quiet backcountry.

The bill includes a corridor land grant for a new Book Cliffs highway, a proposed route from no place to nowhere bisecting the spectacular Book Cliffs area (itself a prime wilderness candidate). This boondoggle would pave the way (at taxpayer expense) for oil tanker trucks bound from the Uinta Basin to railheads along Interstate 70, and accelerate oil and gas drilling and facilitate oil shale and tar-sands mining in the southern Uinta Basin and in the wild Book Cliffs. In addition, the state of Utah would gain title to undeveloped, mineral-rich public lands in the Uinta Basin and elsewhere through land swaps — more valuable lands than what they surrender — so these lands can be industrialized in the absence of federal environmental protections.

"There's no way to tinker around the edges of this bill and fix this," said Tim Peterson of Grand Canyon Trust. "There's just too much wrong with it."

Even as the Bishop-led effort was blowing up on the launchpad in Utah, the Wyoming County Commissioners Association was holding a warm-up conference to launch a similar effort in that state. Ironically, a former congressional aide warned the Wyoming audience against politically radioactive measures that would cause the bill a quick demise in Congress, even as the Utah bill was drawing criticism for precisely these reasons.

While conservationists have expressed disappointment that three years of negotiations have resulted in a bust, rather than legitimate wilderness designations, there is a silver lining: Out of the quagmire in Utah, President Obama has a perfect opportunity to step in and designate the Bears Ears National Monument, cleaning up at least part of the mess.

Molvar is the Sagebrush Sea Campaign Director for WildEarth Guardians, a nonprofit organization working to protect wildlife, wild places, wild rivers and the health of the American West.