Congress passes massive public lands bill with big impacts for Utah

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Towering layers of sandstone cut by water and time near the Wedge in the San Rafael Swell in Emery County.

Washington • The U.S. House on Tuesday passed the most sweeping public lands bill in decades, establishing hundreds of thousands of acres of wilderness across the nation, including a vast swath of Utah, and allowing the creation of a new national monument.

The bill, which passed 363-62, was lauded by Republicans, Democrats, conservation groups and hunters. The package previously passed the Senate by an overwhelming margin and heads to the White House where President Donald Trump is expected to sign it.

“The number of Utah victories in this lands package will do more for the people of Utah than Congress has delivered in a long time,” said Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican who helped shepherd the bill through passage. “This legislation will expand access to public lands, while also shrinking the size of the federal estate. There are wins for America’s sportsmen, hunters, and fishermen.”

In a divided Washington, the bill garnered support from interests often at odds with each other and soared through Congress in quick fashion. All of Utah’s House members voted for the package.

The legislation has broad impacts in Utah, including the creation of the John Wesley Powell National Conservation Area about 150 years since the explorer floated down the Colorado River to map the area.

It also allows the feds to establish a Jurassic National Monument in southern Utah and elevates the Golden Spike Historical Site to a historical park, a designation that also comes 150 years after the transcontinental railroad came together in Utah.

One of the biggest changes in the bill is a long-negotiated measure to end a fight over wilderness in Emery County. The lands package 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 public schools.

Rep. John Curtis R-Utah, particularly praised the designation of wilderness in Emery County, including parts of the San Rafael Swell.

“The Emery County bill has been a locally driven effort and will bring long-term certainty to the area through various designations and expanding Goblin Valley State Park for better management,” Curtis said. “It will also generate millions of dollars to help Utah’s school children through school trust land exchanges.”

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert also praised the bill.

“It's a great example of the good that can happen when members of a community set aside their political differences and find solutions that benefit the county, the state and all our residents,” Herbert said. “There is much to celebrate in this bill, and I am especially excited for the opportunity to generate more than $100 million for Utah's public school children."

"During a time of federal gridlock, this bill is a great example of Congress listening to local communities who have worked in good faith to resolve disputes and find opportunities for both conservation and economic development,” Herbert added.

Another provision of the bill permanently authorizes the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which uses oil and gas revenue to purchase and preserve land.

Bishop, who had been a vocal critic of the LWCF, said the bill changes the formula for the fund — states and local governments will get a higher percentage — and he’s supportive. He also noted that the bill’s creation of new national monuments is how they should be designated and not by presidential decree.

“This bill establishes monuments the right way and reforms LWCF to the benefit of state and local governments and sportsmen,” Bishop said. “This legislation promotes the richness of Utah’s history, empowers school children, and communicates a profound respect for local decision-making.”

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, had blocked an effort to fast-track the legislation in December but Congress swiftly moved the lands package in the past few weeks. It sailed through the Senate 92-8 with Lee voting on the losing side and Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, enthusiastically supporting it.

“In an era when bipartisanship remains elusive, conservation is a rare issue that still brings Congress together,” said Collin O’Mara, president of the National Wildlife Federation.

“Today’s passage of a bipartisan public lands package, including permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund and numerous conservation measures, represents a historic victory for our wildlife heritage and outdoor enthusiasts of every stripe,” O’Mara continued. “We urge the president to sign this bill into law posthaste.”

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) called the measure the “most significant legislative protection we’ve ever secured for Utah’s redrock wilderness.”

“Getting here took decades of activism from generations of redrock activists who first had to defeat six prior inadequate proposals for Emery County,” said Jen Ujifusa, SUWA’s legislative director.

“The early drafts of this bill were likewise terrible, but our friends in the Utah Wilderness Coalition and Americans across the country united to improve it to a bill that does justice to the landscapes it covers," she said. "It’s past time for real cooperation on solutions for Utah wilderness that finally acknowledges the national importance of these lands and their worthiness of protection for future generations, and we hope this huge step forward is a sign that time has come.”