Washington • The Senate passed a massive package of public lands bills on Tuesday to expand wilderness, make permanent a fund for preserving new acreage and create two new national monuments.
The bill, supported by Sen. Mitt Romney and opposed by Sen. Mike Lee, includes several proposals that would impact Utah, including expanding wilderness in southern Utah, supporting fishing resources and creating the John Wesley Powell National Conservation Area as well as elevating the Golden Spike Historical Site to a historical park.
The bill passed 92-8 with support from both parties and now heads to the House.
With Washington deeply divided on other issues, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said the passage of the 600-page measure, which includes more than 100 natural resource bills tucked inside, demonstrates “that maybe, just maybe we here in Congress can get something done.”
Lee, a Utah Republican, had blocked an effort to fast track the legislation in December, arguing it would hurt public lands and allow the government to buy more when it can’t maintain the acreage it has now.
Still stinging from President Barack Obama’s naming of the 1.3-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument, Lee again attempted to amend the bill to prohibit a president from unilaterally creating a national monument in Utah. That amendment failed 60-33 against Lee’s effort Monday night.
“This bill perpetuates a terrible standard for federal-land policy in the West and particularly for the state of Utah,” Lee said.
But others, from both sides of the aisle, conservation groups and hunting and fishing advocates, heralded the bill as a compromise that's long been needed.
“We have come together as a community and poured blood, sweat and tears into advancing measures that represent our shared values and our collective vision,” said Land Tawney, president of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.
“We applaud the Senate for finally passing the most comprehensive public lands package in a decade. Now that the Senate has done its job, the House needs to get this public lands package passed across the finish line and onto the president’s desk for his signature," said Chris Saeger, of the Western Values Project environmental group.
The legislation includes a major bill for Utah, a negotiated deal to preserve areas in Emery County fought over for years. The measure would increase wilderness in the area to 600,000 acres from 450,000 acres, as well as create 248,000 more acres of recreation area there instead of a more restrictive conservation area designation.
It also consolidates about 100,000 acres of Utah trust lands to be more easily developed to raise money for schools, allows the creation of the Jurassic National Monument as well as small land trades in Nephi and Hyde Park.
“This legislation is the culmination of years of collaboration and cooperation between Utah county commissioners and local conservation groups, ranchers, recreationists and others,” Romney, a freshman Republican, said. “As a result, it includes important provisions that were crafted and driven at the local level instead of by Washington bureaucrats.”
Romney and Lee had written competing opinion pieces in the Deseret News over the weekend explaining their votes on the land package.
“No legislation is perfect,” Lee wrote. “Every bill that becomes law in Washington requires compromise. But at some point, too much compromise can lead to a deal doing more harm to your community than good.”
Lee has attempted to wield his power in Washington more recently, using the ability of one senator to halt fast-tracked legislation to scuttle the lands bill in December and also blocked an attempt to pass legislation to protect special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
A majority of Utahns, though, are happy with Lee’s overall job performance in Washington, based on his popularity among Republicans.
A new Salt Lake Tribune-Hinckley Institute of Politics poll shows 53 percent of Utahns support Lee while 29 percent oppose him. About 17 percent aren’t sure about the two-term senator. Lee, though, continues to be a divisive figure. While 76 percent of Republicans give him a thumbs up, 72 percent of Democrats disapprove. A plurality of independent voters — 40 percent — also disapprove, compared with 35 percent who approve.
The survey was conducted by The Salt Lake Tribune and the Hinckley Institute of Politics among 604 registered voters statewide between January 15 – 24, 2019. The margin of error is +/-4 percentage points.