Sen. Mike Lee sinks a big public lands package because Congress won’t stop presidents from creating national monuments in Utah

UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 13: Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, attends a markup of the Senate Judiciary Committee in Dirksen Building on September 13, 2018.

In retaliation for Congress not preventing presidents from creating new national monuments in Utah, Sen. Mike Lee single-handedly blocked a massive public lands package late Wednesday — including several bills sought by his colleagues from Utah.

Among the torpedoed bills was a last-minute compromise that could have solved years-long battles over wilderness areas in Emery County.

It was the second time in a month that Lee, R-Utah, blocked major legislation by himself. In the other, he scuttled a bipartisan attempt to ensure that President Donald Trump cannot fire special counsel Robert Mueller, nor end his probe into whether the president colluded with Russia to sway the 2016 election.

As the Senate nears adjournment for the year, it attempted to pass by unanimous consent a 680-page bill that combined dozens of public lands bills into one package. All it would take is just one senator to block that time-saving move.

“I object,” Lee announced in a night session — after senators refused to adopt a two-word amendment he proposed to exempt Utah from the Antiquities Act, which allows presidents to create national monuments without congressional or local permission. Two states — Wyoming and Alaska — are exempt from the Antiquities Act.

“Utah, like Wyoming and like Alaska, has had a whole lot of presidents declaring a whole lot of public land [as] national monument land,” Lee said. He said if exemption to that law is “good enough for Alaska, if it’s good enough for Wyoming, why not extend the same courtesy to the state of Utah?”

Lee still fumes that former President Barack Obama created the controversial Bears Ears National Monument in Utah — which was partially erased by Trump, who also reduced the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument created by President Bill Clinton.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said the final package included only bills both parties in both houses agreed to, and Lee’s proposal lacked that support. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., was incensed at Lee’s move.

“I’m pretty doggone upset because the people of Colorado tonight who are worried about whether they can protect themselves from fire lost the Wildfire Technology Act in this bill,” he said. He added a Colorado city that needs congressional permission to fix its water systems in a wilderness area also now is left in limbo.

Lee complained the bill was made available only at 10 a.m. that day, and said leaders and staff made it difficult to figure out what was in it and its effects. He said it included several bills he opposed, including permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund often used to buy more federal land.

Gardner fired at Lee saying, “The Land and Water Conservation Fund is in here tonight because — guess what — it has majority support of this body. If we had a vote on it tonight, it would have passed.”

Gardner told the Senate that leaders say the omnibus package will likely receive consideration early in the next Congress, where regular procedures would not allow Lee to block it single-handedly.

Until then, all of those bills, including ideas pushed by members of the Utah delegation, are also blocked.

That means legislation by Rep. John Curtis and Sen. Orrin Hatch, both R-Utah, to resolve battles over how much wilderness to protect in Emery County, isn’t moving forward. A last-minute compromise had changed it this week, and had appeared to smooth its passage.

So Lee’s move upset Emery County Commissioner Kent Wilson — who said the compromise had been cleared by leaders in both parties, key environmental groups and others.

“Twelve public lands council managers, three county commissioners and 99 senators think it’s a good idea, and Sen. Lee thinks he knows better. I don’t think so,” Wilson said.

He said the compromise would increase the amount of wilderness protected in the bill from 450,000 to 600,000 acres. Also it would create a recreation area there instead of a proposed conservation area.

The commissioner said it wouldn’t change how the 600,000 acres has been managed for years, and designations in the bill would prevent a future president from creating up to a 1.5 million acre national monument there. “But we were told that Sen. Lee thought we were giving up too much for wilderness.”

The offices of other members of Utah’s congressional delegation did not immediately return calls seeking comment about proposals blocked by Lee’s move. Among them are:

• One by Rep. Rob Bishop to redesignate Golden Spike National Historic Site as Golden Spike National Historical Park.

• One by Rep. Mia Love to overcome a legal technicality that has prevented the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration from obtaining 500 acres of federal lands identified as available near Saratoga Springs and Eagle Mountain.

• Legislation by Sen. Orrin Hatch to treat helium extraction from gas on federal lands under the same lease terms as oil and gas.

• A bill by Curtis to maintain Upper Colorado and San Juan fish recovery programs through 2023.

• A bill by Love to authorize the transfer of 2.61 acres of U.S. Forest Service land to Nephi for a work center.

• A bill by Bishop to create trails and other recreation facilities throughout northern Utah, including creation of a John Wesley Powell National Conservation Area.

• Legislation by Bishop to allow transfer of some federal land to the town of Hyde Park.