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Conservationists decry Utah’s Public Lands Initiative, say draft hides ‘poison pills’

First Published      Last Updated Jan 03 2017 05:51 pm

Bishop, Chaffetz unveil “discussion draft” of a bill that would designate certain areas in Utah for conservation while others would be set aside for energy development.

In what they characterized as a sweeping gesture of compromise, Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz unveiled their plan to resolve decades of deadlock over how eastern Utah's public lands are managed even as environmental and tribal groups declared the proposal "dead on arrival" and a shameless giveaway to oil and gas interests.

On Wednesday at the state's Capitol, the Republican congressmen released a "discussion draft" of a bill that would set aside special landscapes like Cedar Mesa, San Rafael Swell and Labyrinth Canyon, while expediting mineral development in areas deemed less worthy of protection.

"There is something here for everyone to like and something for everyone to hate," Bishop said, "but if you look at the totality of what we are doing, it is moving us so far forward, there is value in it."

The Utah Public Lands Initiative Act, or PLI, crafted after 1,200 meetings hosted by Bishop and Chaffetz over the past three years, "is rooted in the belief that conservation and economic development can coexist and make Utah a better place to live, work, and visit," their offices wrote in a summary of the bill that would affect 18 million acres of public land in seven counties.

See the highlights of the plan here.

Bishop said the bill rests on four pillars: certainty, recreation, economic development and conservation.

"It will be one of the largest conservation bills in the lower 48 states that has ever been proposed, but in addition to that we want areas open for economic development," Bishop said. "They will be guaranteed for economic development so that we can pay for our schools and provide good paying jobs for Utah citizens. Recreation is no longer just allowed it is guaranteed."

The 65-page draft still has to be finalized, introduced into Congress — Utah Sen. Mike Lee has agreed to be the Senate sponsor — and passed before President Barack Obama leaves office next year.

It is widely assumed Obama will "unilaterally" designate a national monument in Utah, most likely in San Juan County, unless strong conservation measures are approved for some of the state's unprotected scenic and cultural wonders.

The participating counties are San Juan, Grand, Emery, Carbon, Uintah, Duchesne and Summit. Daggett had been the first to propose a plan for inclusion in the bill, but then pulled out of the process after a change in county leadership in the 2014 election.

The draft released Wednesday would afford protective status on 4.3 million acres, including measures to expand Arches National Park; create a small national monument at Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Monument; and designate 41 wilderness and 14 national conservation areas, or NCAs, including 1.1 million acres surrounding Bears Ears buttes.

It would also bar future presidents' use of the Antiquities Act to designate national monuments in the seven counties, although this language has yet to be finished. This aspect of the bill is non-negotiable as far as Chaffetz and Bishop are concerned.

"If we cannot put an end to the constant litigation and dogmatic battles, there is no point in going forward on this. The certainty of what we're doing has to be there, especially if we look at what happened in Nevada where local governments came to an agreement and then last year the president unilaterally changed all of that," Bishop said, referring to the recent designation of Basin and Range National Monument in that state's Lincoln County.

Also in the name of "long-term certainty," the draft would strip millions of acres of impediments to oil and gas development and hand over thousands of disputed routes to the state, including some that apparently cross areas designated for protection.

These provisions drew heated barbs from some conservation groups, which called them "poison pills."

In October 2014, Chaffetz told The Salt Lake Tribune editorial board that disputed road claims would not be part of the bill. Yet these claims are a hallmark of the draft released Wednesday, drawing an intense rebuke from the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

Executive Director Scott Groene characterized the draft as an "un-wilderness bill" because it could open much of these public lands to drilling while offering them little meaningful protection — because it authorizes most of the routes that counties have claimed under a frontier-era law, RS 2477, to run through them. Counties can claim title to routes over public lands if they can show 10 years of continuous use prior to the law's repeal in 1976.

"There is no fixing this bill. It is bad for wilderness, bad for public lands and bad for climate change," Groene said. "There's no resolution or balance here. Either the state gets the route, or if they don't get it, they get to keep fighting over it in court. Conservation gets nothing in this [road] provision. It's totally one-sided to give the county commissioners these crazy route claims they have been going after for decades."

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A closer look

Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz’s long-awaited draft of the Utah Public Lands Initiative Act, being released Wednesday, purports to balance conservation and the opportunity to resolve land-use conflicts in seven eastern Utah counties — San Juan, Grand, Emery, Carbon, Uintah, Duchesne and Summit.

Here is a summary of the 65-page “discussion” draft so far available.

Conservation » The document calls for:

» 41 new wilderness areas totaling 2.3 million acres, including Desolation Canyon, Candland Mountain, a 26,701-acre addition to the High Uintas, Mancos Mesa, Cheesebox Canyon, Dark Canyon, Cedar Mesa, Mexican Mountain, Range Creek and Butler Wash.

» 14 new national conservation areas totaling 1.8 million acres of Bureau of Land Management land, including Bears Ears, White River, Diamond Mountain, San Rafael Swell, Labyrinth Canyon, Book Cliffs and Nine Mile Canyon.

» Expanding Arches National Park by 19,255 acres to protect the view behind Delicate Arch.

» Establishing seven special management areas covering 94,958 acres on U.S. Forest Service lands.

» Establishing the 867-acre Jurassic National Monument at Cleveland Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry.

» Designating 301 miles of wild and scenic river on the Colorado, Green, Dolores, San Juan and Dark Canyon rivers.

» Creating an 110,838-acre Ashley Creek Recreational and Special Management area.

Opportunity » The draft also speeds development access to some areas. It would:

» Expedite drilling in areas deemed “open” to mineral development.

» Convey title to thousands of disputed road segments to the state.

» Bar future Antiquities Act monument designations.

» Consolidate 336,441 acres of School and Institutional Trust Lands (SITLA) through land swaps that would safeguard nearly 36,000 roadless acres in the Book Cliffs from energy development.

» Release 80,797 acres from wilderness study.

» Create a 13,321-acre Price Canyon State Forest.

» Expand Goblin Valley State Park and create a 156,540-acre “co-management” area extending into the San Rafael Swell.

» Convey 23 federally owned areas totaling 40,449 acres to state and local entities to facilitate public use, such as the expansion of the Canyonlands Field Airport, the Hole-in-the-Rock Trail, the creation of Fantasy Canyon State Park, an expansion of the University of Utah’s Range Creek Research Station and the creation of a Seep Ridge utility corridor.

» “Dispose” of 5,094 acres in Emery County.

» Promote economic development for Native American communities, although these sections remain blank.

» Establish a 93-mile OHV trail connecting the town of Green River with Grand Junction, Colo.

» Establish recreation zones covering 375,689 acres in Canyon Country, including two areas in San Juan County for motorized recreation.