A Utah lands bill: Mission impossible?

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U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop is trying to broker a deal among a host of clashing interests


The stunningly beautiful red-rock canyons of eastern Utah are the focus of an effort to craft a sweeping public-lands bill that would protect some areas and release others for development, providing more certainty for users of all types. Photo by Wendy Mimiaga

Utah Rep. Rob Bishop is attempting to do what some think is the impossible.

He is working to craft a compromise among scores of squabbling groups and individuals that would result in the passage of a public-lands bill for eastern Utah.

And though his effort has already taken longer than he anticipated, and many skeptics doubt any such venture can succeed in today’s polarized political climate, he remains hopeful.

“I am the most pessimistic optimist you will ever see, or maybe the most optimistic pessimist is the best way to put it,” he told the Free Press by phone from Washington, D.C.

“I see a window of opportunity to do things differently now.”

Ending uncertainty

Bishop, a Republican from Brigham City who is in his sixth term in Congress, serves (among other assignments) on the Committee on Natural Resources and chairs the Public Lands and Environmental Regulation Subcommittee. Having spent 16 years in the Utah Legislature, he is familiar with the longstanding conflicts over management of public lands in canyon country.

“These are very controversial issues and people have a great deal of emotion around them,” he said.

But he believes everyone could gain from the passage of a bill that would dispel the clouds of confusion that currently linger over the landscape.

“The biggest problem counties have, both elected leaders and the individuals who live on the land, is the uncertainty of ever-changing policies” promulgated by different management agencies, Bishop said.

“If you’re grazing on a BLM allotment, everything can be cool, but they can change the policy without your having any knowledge or any redress.”

Legislation could provide certainty and clarity about who can do what where, he said.

To that end, Bishop’s offfice has sponsored countless meetings to gather input from stakeholders across six counties that have expressed interest in being part of his public-lands initiative: Carbon, Emery, Grand (which includes Moab), San Juan (Monticello, Bluff and Blanding), Uintah and Wayne.

He is working closely with Representatives Jason Chaffetz and Chris Stewart, in whose districts the six counties lie.

“I had hoped to be all done by last Christmas,” he said, adding, “That is not a joke. So I’m way behind where I wanted to be.” But he hopes legislation can be introduced within a matter of months, legislation that offers something for everyone.

“There are areas that have every right to be protected, and there are areas that can have economic development, and the two are not mutually exclusive,” Bishop said.

Bishop, a member of the Tea Party Caucus who said watching a baseball game is “about as active as I get,” may seem an odd man to be discussing potential wilderness designations, but he believes through tradeoffs and compromises, legislation could be crafted that would offer something positive for all.

He believes the time is right because there are new members on some key Senate committees as well as a new Interior secretary, Sally Jewell, whose background is in the business of outdoor recreation.

“I think she’s willing to look at things with fresh eyes,” Bishop said.

“I think there is a window of opportunity there has not been in the past to actually do something, and I hope to avoid some of the delay tactics and the pitfalls” that have sunk efforts in the past.

But, he added, “I am fully aware that my effort may fall flat.”

Alphabet soup


Visitors examine Ancestral Puebloan ruins at Grand Gulch in Utah. Increasing pressures from unmanaged recreation have led the Friends of Cedar Mesa, a nonprofit group, to call for protecting the entire Cedar Mesa area through a national-monument or national-conservation-area designation. Photo by Gail Binkly

The problem with Eastern Utah’s redrock country is it’s too beautiful to be used, but too useful to be left alone.

Adored by recreationists, plumbed for minerals such as potash and uranium as well as oil and gas, and prized for its soaring beauty and ancient cultural resources, the terrain has been the subject of countless proposals for both development and protection.

A veritable alphabet soup of different conservation-minded designations has been suggested for portions of the landscape in San Juan County alone, including NCAs and NRAs, WSRs and WSAs.

For instance:

• The nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa would like to see a national conservation area (NCA) or national monument designation for 600,000 acres on the mesa bounded by Cottonwood Wash on the east, Clay Hills cliffs on the west, the Elk Ridge escarpment on the north, and the San Juan River on the south.

• Diné Bikeyah, a nonprofit that offers a Navajo perspective on conservation, has proposed a larger NCA that would encompass much of western San Juan County.

• The Glen Canyon Institute wants expansion of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (NRA) in western San Juan County.

• The National Parks Conservation Association and Grand Canyon Trust would like to see Hovenweep National Monument, on the Colorado border, expanded.

• The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Wilderness Society, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and many other environmental groups banded together as the Utah Wilderness Coalition support the Red Rock Wilderness Act, which would grant wilderness status to areas such as Desolation Canyon, Cedar Mesa, and Labyrinth Canyon, as well as lands within the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The act has been introduced in the House of Representatives since 1989 and in the Senate since 1996.

• And several groups, including the Grand Canyon Trust and Nature Conservancy, support designating stretches of the Colorado or San Juan rivers as wild and scenic rivers (WSRs).

Meanwhile, on the other side of the ledger:

• San Juan County places a top priority on retaining motorized access, something valued highly by many Utah counties. The state has claimed ownership of close to 12,000 roads across public lands via RS 2477, an 1866 statute originally related to mining.

• The Blue Ribbon Coalition wants the designation of an expanded OHV area near Moab and no net loss of motorized and mechanized recreation.

The group Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife opposes new wilderness areas, wilderness study areas, or national monuments, but wants to “sustain abundant and huntable Big Game and Upland Game populations and promote the protection of major migration corridors by installing proper fencing and crossing structures” on highways, according to an email sent to Bishop in March.

• The Western Energy Alliance opposes large-scale monument designations and advocates that new legislation should be passed requiring congressional approval for any monument designations in Utah. The alliance suggests that just as some areas are prioritized for conservation, others should be given an “energy-priority” designation, including much of the oil-and-gas-rich Uintah Basin in counties such as Duchesne, Uintah and Carbon.

• Utah’s School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) is interested in trading some of its widely scattered holdings for parcels of BLM land with richer mineral potential. At statehood, Utah was granted four tracts for every 36 square miles; these lands are managed to provide maximum revenues for schools. Conservationists say this results in roads across pristine areas and land-use conflicts. Theoretically, some SITLA tracts lying within scenic federal lands could be swapped for parcels of federal land elsewhere, something that has been done in the past.

• But the Southeastern Utah Grazing Advisory Board supports keeping the state lands scattered, because it “gives the state a stronger position for influence in the management of the surrounding federal lands and requires access be granted to the state lands,” the board wrote Bishop in July. The grazing board wants the preservation of roads and water rights and opposes more wilderness and new monuments.

And on it goes.

With all the conflicting proposals, is a solution even possible that would produce “wins” for a large number of users? And would a possible compromise gain support from enough folks to get it passed, or would it dissolve in the acid pool of acrimony that has engulfed so many prior efforts?

Bishop maintains his effort can succeed.

“The idea of [current] partisanship is overblown and not historically accurate,” he said. “There have been other periods equally or even more divisive.”

Eight percent private

Bishop’s initiative has been given impetus by widespread fears among conservative locals that President Obama might use his authority under the Antiquities Act to designate one or more national monuments in Utah and the West toward the end of his term, just as President Clinton did in 2000. An Interior Department memo leaked in 2010 (later publicly released) lists sites that are “good candidates” for monument designation, including Utah’s San Rafael Swell and Cedar Mesa – although the memo also states, “further evaluations should be completed prior to any final decision, including an assessment of public and Congressional support.”

The Outdoor Industry Association, a lobbying group for the powerful and lucrative outdoor-recreation industry, has been lobbying for the designation of a 1.4-million-acre area surrounding Canyonlands that is the largest roadless area in the contiguous United States as a national monument. SUWA, the Sierra Club, the Grand Canyon Trust and many other environmental groups support that idea, but it is bitterly opposed by many Utah residents.

In late October, San Juan County sponsored three public meetings on Bishop’s initiative.

The first, in Monticello on Oct. 22, drew a fairly quiet group of 35 or 40. The next, in Blanding on Oct. 23, was reportedly more fiery, with a crowd double Monticello’s, many of them speaking passionately about states’ rights and what they see as federal government overreach.

The last, in Bluff on Oct. 24, reportedly also attracted a sizable crowd, most of them supporting protection measures for some local lands. San Juan County has not come up with a proposed plan of its own yet. Its official position as of late October was only that, “We believe that the Greater Canyonlands Monument designation would be a step in the wrong direction. We strongly oppose the proposal.”

The county is taking input until Nov. 15 and won’t decide until later whether it will definitely sign on to Bishop’s effort. Input can be provided on its web site, www.sanjuancounty.org. Also, the county is mailing a comment form to everyone with an address in San Juan County as well as out-of-county landowners and grazing-permit holders.

Commission Chair Bruce Adams said county officials are willing to listen to everyone, but access is their main concern.

“Access to public land has been the highest priority the county has always had,” he told the Free Press.

At the Monticello meeting, Adams showed a PowerPoint with facts and figures about San Juan County:

Approximately 41 percent is land managed by the BLM, 12 percent National Park Service, and 9 percent Forest Service. Another 25 percent belongs to the Navajo Nation, 5 percent is state land and 8 percent is private.

Oil and gas leasing is allowed with restrictions on 974,000 acres managed by the BLM; 585,000 acres are closed to leasing.

Another 575,000 acres have been found to have wilderness characteristics and are managed with consideration for those characteristics, although they are not within official wilderness study areas (WSAs).

Another 86,000 acres are in “areas of critical environmental concern” and 89,000 acres lie in “natural areas” that also have some wilderness characteristics.

On national-forest lands, 177,000 acres are classified as roadless, where no timber sales or road construction are allowed.

Four hundred ten thousand acres of BLM land are in WSAs and are strictly managed.

Adams said most tracts of federal public land have several layers of protection and management, including those parts of San Juan County that would be included in the Greater Canyonlands proposal.

‘Special and unique’

At the meeting in Monticello, Adams cited some potential benefits locals could bargain for in exchange for allowing certain conservation measures.

“The commission has discussed trying to get the Cal Black airport deeded to the county for 25 years now,” he said. “We want resolution to that.” In addition, he said, there is federal land adjacent to Blanding the town would like to annex, the water-treatment plant and storage reservoirs for Monticello are on federal property that could be deeded to that town, and the county would like the historic Hole in the Rock Trail, which runs 200 miles from Bluff to Escalante, preserved and possibly deeded to the county.

He said an NCA or NRA might be a good idea for certain areas because the county would participate in writing the plan that would manage it.

And Bishop’s bill might be a way to bring resolution to RS 2477 claims and wilderness study areas, Adams said.

“We really value the comments of the public. We are asking for input,” Adams emphasized.

Mark Maryboy of Diné Bikeyah said that group wants to see protection of ancient sites but also respects traditional land uses by local residents. He said that at a previous meeting “we felt as Native Americans there were inappropriate remarks made” and thanked Adams for controlling this meeting.

Adams noted that 8,000 of the 15,000 voters in San Juan County are Navajo and emphasized that the county values everyone’s opinion.

Bonnie Steele of Grand Junction told the gathering she lived in San Juan County in the 1970s and supports protection for Cedar Mesa. “This place is special and unique, not only to Utah and the country but the world,” she said. “There is no place I have ever experienced or seen that is unique and special and sacred in the way San Juan County and particularly Cedar Mesa are.”

Monticello resident Bob Turri, a member of the local motorized-advocacy group San Juan Public Entry and Access Rights, said when he first came to the county in 1969, it was as a BLM employee. At that time, he said, the portion of Cedar Mesa called Grand Gulch, which is rich in Ancestral Puebloan resources, was little-used.

“BLM wasn’t satisfied with that,” he said. “They decided to put a special designation on it to protect it, but I don’t know what they were protecting it from, because there was no use.”

Two years after it was labeled a ‘primitive area,’ he said, “it was overrun,” and the BLM began directing visitors into surrounding areas to release the pressure. “It wasn’t another two years later that those areas were overrun and we started putting more designations on them, and BLM still can’t manage it.”

He said special designations don’t necessarily bring any additional funding, “so we make things worse rather than better.”

Quit promoting?

That argument doesn’t pass muster with Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

“San Juan County spends quite a bit of money trying to draw people to the county, and so for folks like Bob that would rather not have people, that would be that place to start – telling the county to quit advertising,” he said by phone from Moab. “The county promoting itself and advertising aggressively in Europe has way more effect in terms of use than protecting places will.”

But, he added, “I do share Bob’s concerns. Recreation can be a threat to this landscape like any other use.”

Groene said he is guardedly hopeful about the prospects for Bishop’s effort. “Congressman Bishop has taken the lead and I think he’s sincere about trying to make something happen and so are we,” he said. “But because of the scale of it, it’s a big challenge to see if we can all reach agreement.”

Groene said SUWA wants a bill that includes large-scale exchanges of SITLA lands, protection of significant chunks through wilderness and other designations, and resolution of RS 2477 claims, “so that’s a lot on the plate.”

In San Juan County, he said, that means protection for major portions of the area surrounding Canyonlands as well as Cedar Mesa, the Dark Canyon complex, and the canyon areas that run into the Colorado and San Juan rivers. “All those areas are important and they all deserve protection,” he said. But whether a bill containing any major wilderness or other protective designations will be supported by San Juan County is an open question.

“Going into this we knew there would be people opposed to it,” Groene said. “If there is any hope for success it will be because we work past those people and move forward. Hopefully a small group of naysayers can’t sink it.”

The county is diverse, contrary to many people’s impressions, he said. “Over half is Native American. There are a lot of people in San Juan County that would like to see the areas around them protected. For other folks who don’t agree, this is still the way for them to get some certainty on RS 2477, existing BLM land-management plans, and other issues so they don’t face those types of uncertainties.”

Enviros, get out?

Mark Meloy of Bluff, executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa, echoed those sentiments, saying he hopes a “vocal minority” won’t drown out the majority he believes would gain from such a bill. He said the county commissioners face a difficult task.

At the meeting in Blanding, he said, most people who spoke opposed the county even taking part in the initiative, and there were so many comments that “environmentalists ought to get out of San Juan County” that, in fact, he and his companions got up and left the meeting.

In contrast, he said, in Bluff, a large number – “virtually the whole town” – voiced support for an NCA for Cedar Mesa. “You can see how difficult it is, especially for the commissioners in that kind of political climate, to make any kind of decisions whatsoever. It’s tough.”

Meloy worked for the BLM from 1995 to 2007, some of that on Cedar Mesa, and is very familiar with the impacts of unmanaged recreation.

“Any ruin that’s within a day’s walk of the highway, all the artifacts are gone,” he said. “Any of the named ruins, people know about and are drawn there by the Internet. The artifacts are gone and they are gone because of visitation. The BLM has done as good a job as they can with their limited budget and management tools but they aren’t enough to provide adequate education and enforcement.”

He believes an NCA or national-monument designation could bring more funding to Cedar Mesa but is not overly optimistic about the chances of a bill being passed.

“If the county chooses not to participate, I think the effort will die, as far as San Juan County is concerned,” he said. “If the county presents a proposal, I don’t think we’re going to see much in the way of compromise in it, just what the county feels is best for the economic interests that don’t have much to do with the cultural-resource protection we’re advocating. But at the same time there is a possibility that two of the commissioners will want to go ahead with an NCA for Cedar Mesa.”

He said it’s a valid point that a designation might bring more visitors to Cedar Mesa, but “any publicity brings more people” and “the word is out about it” because of the Internet.

Meloy said the commissioners should keep in mind that recreation is growing while some natural resources are getting played out. “The economic mainstay of San Juan County really is tourism.”

Expanding parks


This map shows a proposal for expanding Hovenweep National Monument. Courtesy of NPCA

Erika Pollard, Utah program manager for the National Parks and Conservation Association, said their proposal includes an expansion of Canyonlands National Park beyond the existing boundary below the Wingate Cliff rim to the natural erosional boundary. This would include more of the Beef Basin area, she said, and would roughly double the park’s existing acreage of 340,000.

“That’s significantly less than the Greater Canyonlands National Monument that other folks are advocating but it does increase the acreage to include everything below the rim of the Wingate Cliffs,” Pollard said.

This is consistent with the original vision for Canyonlands, she said. And while the national-monument proposal would also protect the area, it would leave it under BLM management, she said, whereas NPCA would like it to be under the National Park Service.


One proposal supported by the National Parks and Conservation Association would expand Hovenweep National Monument on the Colorado-Utah border. Photo by Gail Binkly

NPCA would also like to see Hovenweep National Monument, which currently incorporates 400 acres in six small units scattered along the Colorado-Utah border, to take in more of the surrounding lands. “The cultural resources don’t stop at the existing monument boundaries,” she said.

NPCA’s proposal for Hovenweep would extend into Colorado and take in some private parcels as well as a SITLA parcel, meaning there would have to be a land swap or land purchase.

NPCA is also interested in another SITLA parcel on the boundary of Natural Bridges National Monument in San Juan County. Natural Bridges is famed for its dark night sky, and having development potential on its border threatens that sky, Pollard said. She said they have heard there is interest in putting lodging units on that parcel, so NPCA would like to see SITLA exchange that tract for another elsewhere. However, she said, SITLA has indicated it would prefer to hold on to that one.

Other SITLA parcels of interest to NPCA include some in Lockhart Basin between Moab and Monticello, some near Arches National Park, and some near Canyonlands.

In an email to the Free Press, Deena Loyola, a spokesperson for SITLA, declined to be specific about the lands they might be willing to swap, writing, “Because the Eastern Utah Land Exchange Initiative is in its early stages, SITLA is waiting until more substantive proposals are made by all involved parties. At that time, our agency will have a better idea of the proposed acreage for exchange and what we may offer to the overall initiative.”

NPCA would also like to see resolution of RS 2477 claims inside national-park units, including Canyonlands.

Pollard said all the national- park units in eastern Utah “bring huge value to the people who live there and all the people who come to visit the parks and it’s important to make sure they are not impacted by activities outside the parks” that can impair views, air quality, dark skies and the experience that draws people.

Noting that San Juan County has not yet decided whether to come on board, Pollard said their participation is key. She said the county stands to benefit from additional tourism to a larger Canyonlands.

“NPCA is coming to the table to be part of an open transparent process and it’s really going to require everybody that’s at the table to be willing to give a little. Not everybody’s going to get everything they want but there’s a real opportunity to find some resolution to some of these longstanding issues. It’s a really huge endeavor.”

‘A major plus’

Bishop told the Free Press that if any county decides not to be part of the initiative, then lands within its boundaries won’t be included in any bill. “I’m not imposing this,” he said. “If they want out, they’re out.”

He said many people have expressed gratitude to him, Chaffetz and Stewart for tackling this task, but he recognizes that some may feel safer with the status quo.

Still, he hopes to be able to come up with a package “that provides everyone with something that is a positive.”

“Nobody will get everything they want. That’s impossible,” he said. “But if we can give everybody a feeling of victory and bring some certainty in their land practices I think that’s a major plus for the state of Utah.”

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