Tribune editorial: Public lands bill shows America’s love for Utah

Erin Alberty | The Salt Lake Tribune A penstemon puts on a show for approaching hikers May 1, 2016, near Moonshine Tanks in the San Rafael Swell.

What’s this? A huge public lands bill with bipartisan support?

The U.S. Senate this week passed a sweeping bill with large implications for Utah. It still must pass the House and be signed by the president, but the 92 to 8 Senate vote shows how the love for America’s public lands can overcome even Washington’s dysfunction.

It's a throwback to the old days. The deal was driven by compromises that gave something to everyone. In Utah’s case, perhaps there is no better indicator of just how far the parties had to stretch than the fact that both the Emery County Commission and the Southern Utah Wilderness Association are on board.

The Utah highlights:

— The Cleveland Lloyd dinosaur quarry in Emery County becomes Jurassic National Monument.

— More than 660,000 acres of wilderness is set aside along the Green River in Desolation and Labyrinth Canyons and in the San Rafael Swell.

— A national recreation area is created in San Rafael Swell. No mining or new roads will be allowed, but motorized recreation will be on existing routes.

— Sixty-three miles of the Green River is recognized as a Wild and Scenic river.

— More than 100,000 acres in school trust lands inside these areas will be traded out for more productive land elsewhere to the benefit of Utah schoolchildren.

— In this sesquicentennial year of the transcontinental railroad, Golden Spike National Historic Site is elevated to a National Historic Park.

While Utah’s list is a significant portion, this bill included projects from coast to coast. Five national parks are expanded, and three other national monuments are created, including the Mississippi home of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers. The bill creates 2,600 miles of trails and permanently restores the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which taps oil and gas money to pay for conservation in all 50 states. The fund had been allowed to expire by the last Congress.

After more than 30 years of haggling, this represents the most significant progress to date on establishing wilderness on Bureau of Land Management land in Utah. It’s only in one county, but Emery’s leadership joined Rep. John Curtis and former Sen. Orrin Hatch in forging a path where so many efforts had failed before.

Sen. Mitt Romney voted for it. “This legislation is the culmination of years of collaboration and cooperation between Utah county commissioners and local conservation groups, ranchers, recreationists and others,” Romney said. “As a result, it includes important provisions that were crafted and driven at the local level instead of by Washington bureaucrats.”

Sen. Mike Lee was one of the eight to oppose. Lee continues to push his hardliner case on federal lands, including a ban on future Utah national monuments by presidential proclamation. “This bill perpetuates a terrible standard for federal-land policy in the West and particularly for the state of Utah,” Lee said.

In the end, Utah’s claims for sovereignty are no match for America’s love of its scenery and the desire to keep it wild. On this, the nation agrees.

As Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines told the New York Times, “It took public lands to bring divided government together.”