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Op-ed: Utah’s leaders blew their chance for negotiation on Bears Ears

First Published      Last Updated Aug 20 2016 06:45 pm

Sometime in the next five months, as President Obama is packing, he might make a presidential national monument designation under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to protect historical and scientific objects in Southern Utah. Protecting the Bears Ears, an area that encompasses 1.9 million acres of archaeologically precious land in San Juan County.

If the president acts, I predict howling from the governor's office to the San Juan County Commission chambers, with the loudest complaints emerging from the Utah D.C. delegation. I predict they will be yelping about a lack of local input. Truth is, if there has been a lack of local ideas, it is squarely on the shoulders of Utah's elected officials.




Over the last three years, I have been to Washington and in the White House on several occasions to talk about Bears Ears. As have others. Conversations with the decision makers ended with the administration saying, "We are waiting for the Bishop Public Land Initiative."

The Obama people wanted fair, negotiated talks to cover a broad range of public land issues in Utah. They were anxious for Utah's input. The White House door was wide open. Unfortunately, Utah elected folks chose smugness over serious talks. They chose political maneuvering over generational problem solving. Our Utah elected officials failed us miserably on public lands.

Land has been an issue for Utah since statehood. However, because of the possibility of an Antiquities Act declaration, and with Rep. Rob Bishop's position of leadership in Congress on public lands, there was a unique window to find long-term, broadly encompassing solutions to public land issues in Utah. It was an opportunity for our state to honestly sit down at the highest levels and solve longstanding issues. Incorporating a holistic approach including wilderness, PILT payments, SITLA land trades, energy areas, Utah's endless and costly lawsuits, roads, management of land, guarantees of outdoor recreation availability and increases in funding for our national lands and parks. Everything was on the table!

But, sadly, neither Bishop nor any of our GOP public officials ever seriously showed up!

Bishop and the Utah GOP announced their idea for a Public Lands Initiative (PLI) bill over 1,000 days ago. The White House waited for their plan.

Deadlines passed. One after another. Year after year. Patiently, the White House waited for a Utah negotiating partner.

Six months ago, after two and a half years, Bishop finally released his "discussion draft." Most everyone hated the proposal. The White House patiently waited for a bill.

Finally, on July 16, a PLI bill was released, more than 900 days after the idea was announced. The bill emerged with less than 60 days left in the legislative session. In this divided Congress, to imagine that a bill this controversial could get public input, get through both houses of Congress and be on the president's desk in a few days is nonsensical. Bishop has to have known that his late PLI was DOA.

Ignore the fact that the PLI is a flawed, political, one-sided, fossil fuel lobby dream piece of legislation. The fact is that Bishop's stall in producing a bill fatally killed any real possibility of dialogue between Utah and the White House.

So, as the president is packing in the Oval Office, and as his focus comes to Bears Ears, will he listen to the united pleas of 26 Native Tribes and nearly half of Utah's population asking for protection for this land, or will he listen to the disingenuous voice of Bishop and the howlers of the Utah delegation?

We shall see.

Sen. Jim Dabakis represents Salt Lake City in the Utah State Senate.

 

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