Battle over public land designations divides Utah lawmakers, too, as state bill seeks to usurp local control

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kenneth Maryboy and Willie Grayeyes in Salt Lake City for the House Democratic caucus in Salt Lake City on Tuesday Feb. 12, 2019.

A bill that would require Utah counties to obtain legislative approval before proposing or endorsing a federal land designation narrowly survived a committee vote Tuesday evening.

Some members of the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee, including Republicans, feared that the measure could actually exacerbate the already fraught debates over wilderness, national monuments and other protective designations that are often seen as a hinderance to proper land management.

But Rep. Carl Albrecht, sponsor of HB78, argued his bill would simply ensure that proposed land designations align with the state’s interests.

“The state of Utah is the sovereign, and cities and counties are political subdivisions of the state,” the Richfield Republican told the committee. “If it’s a good proposal and we make suggestions, that’s the right process and we will support them going forward to make a federal designation.”

But critics see the bill as a way for conservative lawmakers to sabotage or dilute locally driven conservation proposals, such as those currently underway for the Central Wasatch, Emery County and San Juan County, whose new Navajo-majority County Commission is expected to vote soon on a resolution calling for the full restoration of Bears Ears National Monument.

The committee advanced the bill on 7-6 vote, with four Republicans dissenting.

“I’m fine with the check back. I support collaboration," said Rep. Timothy Hawkes, R-Centerville. “I tend to think if this bill passes, it will encourage more conflict than the collaboration that I would like to see.”

For the past decade, county and municipal leaders in Salt Lake and Summit counties have been collaborating with various stakeholders on a conservation plan for the Central Wasatch, whose federally managed alpine basins and plunging canyons provide both water and outdoor recreation for Utah’s largest metro area.

The resulting plan is ready for congressional consideration with a proposed 80,000-acre conservation area that includes some additions to existing wilderness areas now confined to the high peaks framing Little and Big Cottonwood canyons.

However, HB220 would require the Central Wasatch Commission, an association of two counties and several cities, to present its proposed conservation area to the Legislature, where it has already been denounced because its wilderness provisions could make it harder to “actively manage” the forest.

Before the commission could submit its plan to Congress, it would need legislative approval, which would have to come in the form of a concurrent resolution signed by the governor. But given Utah lawmakers’ hostility toward wilderness and monument designations, it is unlikely such approval would be easily won.

Barely disguised in the debate over HB78 was many Republican lawmakers’ overall disdain of protective land designations, which they allege unnecessarily hamper responsible management of public land and its resources.

“I’m concerned we have groups that are trying to create national conservation areas or pass legislation that could very well have detrimental effects to the state as a whole,” Albrecht said. “Some of these proposals have not taken into consideration fires, fire prevention, watersheds and the things that are important.”

HB78 reprises a bill brought last year by now-retired Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, that sought to bar officials from advocating for protective land designations absent a legislative review of the proposal. The previous bill, which died on the Senate floor after clearing the House, was seen as a restriction on free speech because it would have prevented elected officials from speaking their minds.

The current bill would not do that, Albrecht said in response to a query from Hawkes.

Critics point out that Utah lawmakers tout the importance of “local control” and blast federal land managers for disregarding local officials’ wishes.

“Top to bottom rarely works. Bottom to the top is what you guys live on,” San Juan County Commissioner Willie Grayeyes told the committee last week, pointing out the apparent hypocrisy in HB78 proponents’ reasoning. His remarks hinted that the Legislature’s preference for local primacy ends when it promotes protective designations.

Before being elected commissioner last year, Grayeyes was a leading advocate for the Bears Ears designation as chairman of a grass-roots group that is now suing to overturn President Donald Trump’s order reducing it by 85 percent at the behest of state leaders.

Last week, congressional Democrats introduced a bill to not just restore that monument, but also reset the boundaries in line with the 1.9 million acres originally proposed by five American Indian tribes with ancestral connections to southeast Utah. HB78 would make it impossible for the San Juan County Commission to endorse that bill, which Utah’s delegation will certainly fight.

Several other land designation bills are moving through Congress that entail land designations in Utah. The most consequential was assembled by Emery County leaders who have toiled for the past 24 years to craft federal legislation that is hoped to resolve stubborn land-use conflicts in that central Utah county, which is richly endowed with both geological scenery, such as the San Rafael Swell and Labyrinth Canyon, and mineral resources, particularly coal.

A revised version of that bill, which passed the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, was Albrecht’s leading exhibit in support of his bill — much to the chagrin of the Emery County Commission Chairman Lynn Sitterud. While Albrecht was careful to say he has no argument with Emery County, which falls within his district, he was dismayed that the Emery bill’s wilderness footprint grew after it hit the halls of Congress.

At an earlier committee hearing on HB78, Wayne County Commissioner Newell Harward blasted the Emery bill because some of the 663,000 acres of proposed wilderness borders his county, yet his commission was not consulted. He argued HB78 would prevent such surprises.

“For some reason we were never included in the conversation and we are affected,” Harward said. “We grade roads [from Emery] into Muddy Creek. ... This is an example of one political subdivision affecting another on a decision we didn’t even know was coming down."

Emery County never proposed the wilderness abutting Wayne County, although it did sign off on it as part of a negotiation to get the lands bill out of the Senate.

“That was pushed by [Senate] Democratic leadership in D.C. It was the only way to get their support," Sitterud said. “It was not something we asked for or wanted. ... We received [trust lands] trades and we asked for stronger language on roads.”

Should HB78 become law, Emery County would not be allowed to support its own long-overdue lands bill in the U.S. House until next year at the earliest.