A delay for ‘The Grand Bargain’: March 27 deadline passes; work continues on Utah lands bill

March 27 came and went without the expected unveiling of a draft bill for managing eastern Utah’s treasured public lands, but the deadline for inclusion in “The Grand Bargain,” as the legislation is being called, has been extended.

Utah Congressmen Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz postponed the deadline to complete negotiations on their sweeping public-lands initiative in order to get the most input possible from stakeholders before the initiative is introduced as a bill in Congress late this spring. If the cobbled-together final proposal from Utah is successful in determining the best application of federal land designations, it could become the model for future land-use processes.

Nearly three years ago Bishop and Chaffetz invited Utah’s eastern counties to craft proposals for managing the federal lands in their purview, and a slew of public meetings began throughout the participating counties: San Juan, Daggett, Uintah, Carbon, Duchesne, Emery, Grand and Summit, all bordering Colorado. Although the discussions have been lively and often contentious, the stakeholders know if they can’t reach a consensus, President Obama could unilaterally declare much of the land in question a national monument.

The process has intensified since March 27. All of the counties still needed time to polish details. In the cases of San Juan County, a deal with all vested parties hadn’t been reached.

Over 90 percent of all U.S. federal land is located in the Western states, and Utahans are particularly sensitive to federal regulations and restrictions on access and uses of the scenic country in their backyards. Mineral and natural-resource extraction companies, recreation businesses, ranchers and farmers, environmental groups, conservation organizations, and Native tribes have been asked to submit to their county commissioners proposals for uses and designations on public lands in each locale.

The effort is intended to result in a workable lands bill that will resolve at last some long-hanging questions about energy extraction, wilderness designations, and other thorny issues.

An ambitious effort

The initiative’s complexity and the size of the land at stake, possibly over 18 million acres, combined with the sheer number and range of diverse stakeholders has earned the effort the moniker, “The Grand Bargain.” The idea is that everyone could get some of what they propose, but obviously not all.

If it works, it will be an impressive success, but some critics say that the chances for a consensus may be slim.

The responses from the counties involved are very uneven, said Bill Hedden, executive director of the Grand Canyon Trust, which is considered a stakeholder in all the counties. “Where people were amenable to negotiations, there was hope,” he said.

“The Daggett County commissioners were very pleased with the outcome we all negotiated there. After that we felt confident we could negotiate in Uintah. Emery and Grand were on the horizon,” Hedden said.

“We had lots of input in Summit, but our discussions with Emery were empty – they’re not interested in changing a thing since 2009. Carbon County is a non-starter and there is less protection in their proposal today than in 1995 and San Juan County is just not talking, just saying, ‘We’ll do our own thing.’ These have been intensive negotiations. We had hoped for nuanced outcomes in the final agreements.”

Early in February the congressional delegation recognized that the sluggish process needed a jolt, explained Fred Ferguson, Chaffetz’s chief of staff, in a telephone interview, “so we set a deadline. Our goal was to get a draft document by March 27. But there has not been enough vetting with the stakeholders.

“Now that the House is in recess we have two weeks to hone in on what’s important in the bill. Consensus is possible,” Ferguson said. “We should have a discussion draft by the end of the month ready for comment on Bishop’s website.”

San Juan County has the most diverse population of the counties involved. Half of its residents are Native citizens actively participating through Utah Diné Bikéyah, a not-for-profit organization that was selected to represent the Navajo Nation with the support of the Navajo government. The group has identified traditional uses and defined sacred sites in and around Cedar Mesa, a vast, scenic area rich in cultural resources. Cultural mapping was a big part of the preparation of the Diné Bikéyah proposal; as an example, through interviews with elders the group was told stories of Zuni migration from Grand Canyon to their present homeland. None of the 1.9 million acres proposed for by Diné Bikéyah for a Bear’s Ears National Conservation Area/National Monument is on reservation land.

A Nabik’íyáti’ yes vote

On March 12, legislation co-sponsored by Navajo Nation council delegates Walter Phelps and Davis Filfred was introduced to the council’s Nabik’íyáti’ Committee, of which all 24 delegates are members. It called for comments, discussion and a vote over support of the Utah Diné Bikéyah Bear’s Ears proposal.

The designations in the proposal are aimed at forever protecting Native rights and interests on federal lands, traditional uses of the lands and their cultural, natural, scenic and archaeological values. According to the legislative description, the Bear’s Ears region is the ancestral home of the Diné and many other Southwestern Native American nations and includes the birthplace of historic Navajo leader Manuelito.

The legislation states that it includes a collaborative management role for the Navajo Nation and other tribal governments “to ensure that traditional stewardship practices, wisdom and cultural activities are elevated in the future management of this cultural landscape. Utah Navajo communities have been involved in developing and advancing the proposal to protect an area they depend upon for food, medicine, firewood and their spiritual well-being.”

At the end of the council’s discussion, the vote was unanimous to support the Bear’s Ears NCA / National Monument. It was the final action on the legislation.

Bear’s Ears is a great initiative, Phelps told the Free Press. “The bill which Congressman Bishop wants to push is one option. The other option is that President Obama could do it by executive order. I do understand there are competing interests involved so I’m sure they are all doing their best to lobby members both for and against.

“It almost seems that Obama’s executive process is much more promising than the legislative process,” he added.

Support for Bear’s Ears

Multi-tribal interest in the lands initiative is strong. Mary Jane Yazzie, an elder from the White Mesa Ute Mountain Ute tribe, recently joined the Diné Bikéyah board. “It is very helpful as we try to include and coordinate tribal interests,” said Gavin Noyes, executive director for Diné Bikéyah.

Noyes explained that the group has been to Washington, D.C., to lobby for its proposal, most recently in December. Meanwhile, resolutions from other federally recognized tribes have been issued in support of the proposal, including Hualapai, Ysleta del Sur Pueblo in Texas, the Hopi and the All Indian Pueblo Council of Governors.

He accepts the extension. “All negotiating processes present challenging deadlines. They get bumped back and in this case the county’s [San Juan] not ready and there’s a lot of misinformation about the Bear’s Ears proposal, especially about the amount of acres proposed as national conservation area vs. the size of the wilderness designations.”

The Diné Bikéyah board is reaching out to interested, concerned people, he said. “It’s important to look at the facts and get involved. For instance, the Bear’s Ears proposal is designed to protect Native American cultural uses, especially access to hunting and gathering. It includes a variety of layers of protection for archaeology sites in some areas, wildlife and habitat in other areas, and access for firewood collection and cultural use in others.”

Noyes admitted it’s difficult to attend meetings in such a vast county, but the easiest way to participate, he said, is to join the Utah Diné Bikéyah website mailing list and comment online.

“Bear’s Ears is designed to block all bulldozers from entering these public lands. The proposal will not, however, keep people, cows, guns, or even sagebrush rebels out, and the overall intent is to keep these lands as they are today. Bear’s Ears will be accessed by the same roads that go to the same places as they do now.”

Coming to the table

Negotiations over individual proposals are intense. According to council delegate Filfred, who represents five Utah Chapters, Aneth Chapter reopened the discussion about the Bear’s Ears proposal at its March chapter meeting. The topic was their support of the Navajo Council Legislation regarding Bear’s Ears NCA. A few community members were lobbying to rescind the chapter’s support of the legislation.

“They talked about it, but I explained that they already held many public meetings and talked about it at great length before the resolution was passed at the chapter level in support of the Bear’s Ears legislation. After that it went to the Navajo Council Nabik’íyáti’ committee,” Filfred said by telephone. “That was done. It passed the Navajo council. There is no more action on it. It is a done deal.”

In an April 3 press release from the Navajo Council, delegate Phelps explained, “The initiative to protect the Bear’s Ears area was initiated by local Utah Navajos; however, the combined collective interest of tribes [will] only make the proposal more viable. We look forward to making positive progress with leaders in Washington.”

In separate interviews, Ferguson and Noyes voiced hope that when the commissioners convene San Juan County stakeholders during April, all parties can engage in meaningful discussion around values and collaborations. Ferguson added that the congressional delegation is working with the San Juan County commissioners to try to find a way to merge the differing proposals.

“The pieces are there and proposals have been advanced,” Ferguson said. “We’re trying to give more time to help facilitate the package, something to share, something better than it currently is. Navajo is a very important piece of the county. After all, 50 percent of the population is Navajo or Native. If we get it right in San Juan County, we can get it right elsewhere.”

The discussion draft will be developed through an open and transparent process, he said. “We still want to hear from people and when it goes to formal legislation in Washington, D.C., then that’s the ultimate public process. It will be scrutinized by a lot of people.”

A San Juan County stakeholders meeting on the Utah Lands Initiative proposal is set for Wednesday, April 8, at 3 p.m. in the Arts and Events Center at Utah State University Eastern, Blanding, Utah.

From April 2015. Read similar stories about , .