After Utah Rep. Rob Bishop’s embrace of a massive lands bill, environmentalists hope he’s turning their way

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Rep. Rob Bishop, of Utah's 1st Congressional District, delivers his re-election speech at the Utah Republican Nominating Convention, April 21, 2018, at the Maverik Center in West Valley City. Long viewed as a foe of environmental initiatives, Bishop has been a key supporter of a massive public lands bill now on its way to the House after flying through the Senate with bipartisan approval.

Washington • Rep. Rob Bishop used to be public enemy No. 1, or close to it, for environmental groups.

As chairman of the House Natural Resource Committee, the Utah Republican pushed issues unfriendly to the environmental community and sunk bills that its members sought. And he was one of the biggest cheerleaders of President Donald Trump’s efforts to reduce the size of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.

But this Congress, with Bishop now in the minority in the Democratic-led House, he’s turned into a supporter of a major lands package touted by green groups.

“Hope springs eternal,” says Chris Wood, president of the conservation group Trout Unlimited.

The lands bill, which soared through the Senate 92-8, includes a permanent renewal of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a program Bishop has repeatedly criticized. It also adds hundreds of thousands of acres of new wilderness and new national monuments.

Bishop is a key vote as the House now takes up the legislation.

“I'm not sure this bill happens without his leadership. It's great news,” Wood says. “I don't think he wanted to be a speed bump here. He didn't want to be a roadblock.”

The Center for Western Priorities, which has pushed back at Bishop previously, was cautiously optimistic about his new approach.

“I don’t know if it’s a true change of heart, or whether Representative Bishop has finally come around to the reality that being an opponent of public lands is a political dead end — even in Utah,” says the center’s Aaron Weiss. “Either way, it’s a welcome shift.”

Still, it’s not like Bishop is going to be given any awards by environmentalists.

“Representative Bishop is still a climate ostrich,” Weiss says. “He spent a full five minutes inexplicably blaming Patagonia for climate change this week. So it’s safe to say he’s got a ways to go before he truly understands the science and not just the politics of public lands.”

Bishop's staff on the Natural Resources Committee did not respond to a request for comment.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, long a foe of Bishop’s policies, isn’t sure whether the lawmaker should get too much credit here, though the group praises the current legislation that adds wilderness in Emery County. The group says it is much improved over Bishop’s push for the Public Lands Initiative.

“I don't know whether Rob has changed, but the lands package freight train seems too big and popular for him to stop in his new position in the minority under House rules,” says SUWA's executive director, Scott Groene.

Groene praised Utah’s Sen. Mitt Romney, Rep. John Curtis and former Sen. Orrin Hatch for their help to push the legislation.

Julia Peebles, the government relations manager of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, lauded the bipartisanship that the public lands legislation has found in Congress this year.

“Representative Bishop’s actions reflect this,” Peebles says. “Legislators realize that if they want to achieve a win — and if they want to see their priority issues addressed in the massive public lands bill that is the Natural Resources Management Act — they’ll have to give a little.”

Peebles noted Bishop’s previous opposition to the Land and Water Conservation Fund — he disliked the state-federal split of money and purchasing new land to add to the public inventory instead of managing current public lands — yet he now has emerged as a supporter of the new bill.

“We sincerely appreciate his support of this package," she said, “and look forward to the House expeditiously advancing it to the president’s desk.”