Crunch time for a public-lands bill: Will Utah’s ‘Grand Bargain’ succeed, or be quashed by opponents?

Can clashing interests in eastern Utah agree to a compromise for public-lands management?

The coming months should see an answer to that question.

After nearly six years of meetings, discussions, and give-and-take, Utah Congressmen Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz have gone public with a working draft of a lands designation bill that will define future management of federal public lands in seven eastern Utah counties.

The often contentious process to solicit proposals from county officials and stakeholders has come to a brief hiatus as vested parties in the Utah Public Lands Initiative (PLI) take a time-out to study the discussion draft of the bill released by the congressional delegation on Jan. 20.

The PLI’s attempt to create a comprehensive compromise represents a “grand bargain” in which the proposed management for every acre is supported by a stakeholder or local county government proposal. The PLI bill is intended to bring resolution to some of the most challenging land disputes in Utah, perhaps even in the western United States.

The congressmen contend that conservation and economic development can coexist.

To critics who balk at the 2.2 million acres of wilderness and the 1.9 million acres of new national conservation areas the bill would establish, the draft states that without some conservation provisions and wilderness designations, the PLI Act could not become law – and that might open the door for national monument designations.

“Without a law, uncertainty and fighting would continue, perpetuating a status quo that has been broken for decades,” it states, warning, “Lack of movement will also invite unilateral presidential monument designations. Conservation provisions outnumber opportunity provisions by a 4-to-1 margin in the PLI … conserving 4,335,377 acres of federal land and 301 miles of rivers as wild, scenic and recreation – the distance between Salt Lake City and St. George.

“Compromise is key to legislation.”

Offering certainty

The draft assigns designations to one third of the 18 million federally owned acres managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service in the area under consideration. It focuses management into two overarching sections – conservation and development. The final tally of the draft assigns 4.1 million acres to conservation while 1.2 million acres are set aside for economic development and new recreation.

As proposed, the legislation would also designate 406 miles of wild and scenic rivers, including 22 miles of the Dolores River in Utah. Other river segments protected uner the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act would include portions of the Colorado, Green, San Juan and Dark Canyon rivers.

Input was submitted from local residents and special interests including ranching, agriculture, recreation, energy extraction and production, native tribes, and conservation.

Efforts to elicit proposals for the sweeping concept developed a final momentum in the last three years after many unrealistic deadlines passed with no results. After more than a thousand meetings with 120 stakeholder groups, Bishop described the work as an “amazing three years,” while admitting he expected it to be a lot easier.

“We gave more deference to Utahans than to outside groups,” said the congressman in an interview on Trib Talk, the Salt Lake Tribune’s broadcast news program. “We are doing the right thing and it’s unprecedented. We’re breaking the boundaries of what has been done [before]. We wanted a piece of legislation that was logical, rational. . . a fair piece of legislation.”

According to information on the PLI website, the congressional delegation aims to improve the management of public lands, not to privatize them. Lands under the PLI Act will be “managed by the federal government,” it says, “or a state/local government – not private interests.” Lee Lonsberry, Bishop’s communication director, said the team feels they have achieved the hoped-for land use certainty that has eluded stakeholders in the past.

“I want people to know the discussion draft represents the goal set by Bishop for economic opportunity and conservation – to provide certainty for folks who have been without it, certainty for everyone involved including recreation, grazing, industry,” Lonsberry said. “A stable ground.”

SITLA swaps

One sizable chunk of public land considered in the draft bill is that managed by Utah’s School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, SITLA. The state manages remote parcels of state land for the benefit of the its education trust fund. Revenues also benefit the state prison system.

According to Fred Ferguson, Chaffetz’s chief of staff, the bill proposes consolidating 330,000 acres of SITLA land to take it out of conservation management and put it into energy-potential classifications.

Many of the SITLA sections are “intermixed like a checkerboard,” said Casey Snider, legislative director for Bishop. “They are not aggregated enough to benefit economic development. We are proposing to consolidate them enough to create some economic benefit.”

One example in Grand County is already a sticking point in the PLI. SITLA is set to swap mineral-rich lands in the Book Cliffs Roadless Area for more accessible mineral-containing lands in the Uintah Basin. The draft claims that this swap will support SITLA, while also providing for the 35,891-acre Book Cliffs Roadless Area to be protected and managed by the state of Utah for its scenic and wildlife values.

Energy zones

Ferguson explained that the PLI wants to offer certainty for possible energy development on BLM land identified as open for oil and gas development. They want to streamline the process involved in getting permission to drill.

“Certainty means it would not be bogged down in red tape.”

One of the areas of high interest is Cedar Mesa in San Juan County. Late last year the Bears Ears Inter-tribal Coalition, composed of Hopi, Navajo, Zuni, Ute Mountain Ute and Ute Tribe representatives, organized to propose 1.9 million acres including Cedar Mesa be declared the Bears Ears National Monument. They also proposed a co-management structure that included the five coalition tribes and three federal agencies – which would be a first for the federal government.

The draft bill proposes instead a 1.1-million-acre Bears Ears National Conservation Area, a less-protective designation.

No energy-development zones are proposed within Bears Ears, Ferguson said. “No land there meets the criteria. Instead, the energy zone in San Juan County, for instance, is all east of Highway 191 where there is little conflict. We do not intend to do any energy development on Bears Ears.”

Ferguson said none of the SITLA consolidations would occur on the Bears Ears National Conservation Area. Although, he added, Friends of Cedar Mesa, a nonprofit based in Bluff, Utah, flagged one of the SITLA sites in the discussion map as one with archaeological artifacts, “so we’re working with them now to address this issue.”

The draft provides for long-term energy-development designations for certain federal lands categorized as conducive to energy development.

With few stipulations, those lands do not merit protective status, it says; rather, the highest and best use of this land is energy development. “PLI ensures that lands identified by experts as being suitable for development are leased and developed in a streamlined, timely manner yet subject to environmental reviews required by law.”

“There are other land disposals to be sold. They are also identified under BLM authority,” explained Snider. “The proceeds go to the federal treasury. I’d be surprised if it was over 1,000 acres in the draft. BLM identified those very small parcels, 50 acres here and there intermingled with private property.”

A broad spectrum of users benefit from multiple uses, such as energy and mineral production, and potential recreation revenue. Future generations will benefit, the PLI draft states, by having policies that utilize the land in the most responsible and reasonable ways that make sense now and into the future.

But in a rejoinder posted on its website, the Southern Wilderness Utah Alliance calls the draft PLI is “a carbon bomb,” continuing, “It might more appropriately be described as a fossil fuel development bill. While our nation is starting to get more serious about tackling the serious threats of climate change, the draft PLI works in the opposite direction. It dedicates millions of acres of public lands to fossil fuel development and opens up lands currently off limits to energy production.”

SUWA also says the bill “is lipstick on a pig and a Trojan Horse that will take conservation backwards.”

Left out?

The PLI bill creates 14 national conservation areas covering 1,835,085 acres of federal land. Like wilderness, NCAs offer protection to worthy landscapes found on federal land. But NCAs offer greater flexibility for multiple uses and are generally a less-protective status than either wilderness areas or national monuments.

The Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition is disappointed and angry that the draft bill proposes an NCA rather than a national monument for the Bears Ears area. The group claims that local San Juan County Navajo and Utes, and their respective sovereign governments’ efforts for inclusion in the San Juan County land designation proposal were largely ignored by the local county commissioners and the San Juan County Lands Council assigned the task of finalizing the local stakeholders’ proposal. The coalition finally explored the possibility of working with the congressional delegation directly in order to be included in the bill.

“[We] attempted to work with the delegation to try to reach an agreement and inclusion in the PLI,” said Eric Descheenie, co-chair of the coalition, “and hoped to be successful using the legislative route instead of pressing for a unilateral declaration from President Obama declaring the sacred lands a national monument co-managed by the native tribes. We left ourselves open and very vulnerable to the folks in the PLI leadership. The fact that we were not in the draft legislation was not surprising.”

Instead, the PLI designated the area of their interest an NCA.

Snider told the Free Press the bill attempts a compromise between the differing interests. He said San Juan County proposed a 600,000-acre NCA. “We attempted to split the difference between 1.9 million and the 600,000 acres the county proposed. The number in the PLI is now at 1.1 million. Management would consist of two local tribal members, one from San Juan County, and one from the state, all serving in an advisory capacity. In the eyes of our attorney, the federal government can’t have tribal or county management of federal land.”

Descheenie’s take on the move shows how far apart the groups are. “We’ve learned there’s clearly an ideological difference between the coalition and the delegation,” added Descheenie. “It doesn’t matter how intelligible a document our proposal is, until we get past these differences it won’t happen.”

Wilderness in name only?

Wilderness is another area of sharp dispute in the draft bill. Wilderness Study Areas are lands set aside by the federal government as potential wilderness; they are managed as wilderness until Congress decides either to designate them or take them off the list.

However, the PLI found that many WSAs in the affected areas didn’t fit the criteria for wilderness, even though they have been in limbo as WSAs for years.

“BLM identified 80,797 acres of WSAs that should either be designated as wilderness or be returned to multiple use,” explained Snider. “That description can include anything from recreation to energy development. The release to multiple uses would take away the very high-level wilderness restrictions. Any release would be managed consistent with BLM management [policies].”

The bill would designate 2.2 million acres as wilderness, but conservation groups are not impressed.

In a statement, the nonprofit Center for Western Priorities said the bill would create “wilderness in name only.”

“For example, the bill legislates that new wilderness areas— even those in national parks—cannot be designated as a ‘Class I airshed’ to protect visibility and air quality,” the center says. This means drilling and industrial development could happen right up to the newly ‘protected’ areas.

“Another major concern is that the bill takes science-based management out of land management decisions. The proposal, for example, mandates that grazing continue at current levels within protected areas in perpetuity, regardless of drought or condition of the range. And lands that are currently set aside as Wilderness Study Areas would be given up forever and ‘released’ for industrial uses.

“What Congressman Bishop’s bill calls “Wilderness” is not wilderness as it’s been understood since the passage of the Wilderness Act over 50 years ago.”

Tribal opposition

The Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation is located in the Uinta Basin, in northeast Utah. It stretches over five counties: Uintah, Duchesne, Wasatch, Grand and Carbon. The basin covers approximately 11,500 square miles, and Ute Indian Tribe jurisdiction comprises just over 4 million acres of this area, reaching from the Utah-Colorado border west to the Wasatch Mountain range.

The Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation is a checkerboard ownership reservation containing Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Indian Allotted, and Ute Distribution Corporation Jointly Managed Indian Trust minerals, along with privately owned fee land and federal minerals.

In a statement published on the day the PLI was released, the Ute Indian Tribe wrote, “[We] strongly oppose provisions in the draft UPI bill that would give away the Tribe’s land and minerals. The Tribe is continuing to assess the draft bill … but strongly opposes a land exchange between the BLM and Utah’s SITLA land within the tribe’s reservation.

‘We contacted the Congressmen and SITLA more than a year ago to talk about any proposals for lands within our Reservation,’ said Chairman Shaun Chapoose, ‘but, discussions were kept secret and now the bill proposes to give away our most valuable resources.’

“…The Tribe actively manages its oil, gas and natural resources to fund its government and provide for its members. Without a word of tribal consultation, the bill proposes to consolidate SITLA land holdings in areas within the Tribe’s Reservation that are rich with mineral resources.”


A comparison of proposals for conservation in the Bears Ears area (not to the same scale). Left is the Public Lands Initiative’s proposed 1.1-millionacre national conservation area. Above, the proposal by the Bears Ears Inter-tribal Coalition for a 1.9-million-acre national monument.

Shuffling land

The draft bill also would expand Arches National Park by 19,255 acres to protect a view, and proposes to turn an 867-acre area in the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry in Emery County, home to the densest concentration of Jurassic-era dinosaur fossils in the world, into Jurassic National Monument. More than 15,000 bones have been excavated from the Jurassic predator trap that was designated a National Natural Landmark in October 1965. With seasonal closures and limited resources at the current BLM site, local stakeholders felt the site warranted monument status.

Additional designations would include Utah’s first state forest, Price Canyon State Forest, gained from 13,000 acres of reconsolidated state lands in Carbon County.

Ashley Creek Recreational and Special Management Area will facilitate all-season outdoor recreation and will also allow forest product development in 110,839-acres of Uintah County area, zoned as RFM-Recreation, Forestry and Mining. However, if the PLI bill is successful in Congress, mineral development and extraction will be prohibited there in order to promote and protect the outdoor recreation experience.

Other land exchanges would include 40,449 acres in 23 separate federal land conveyances to state and local authorities for expansion of the Canyonlands Field Airport, transfer of the historic Hole-in-the-Rock Trail, and creation of the Fantasy Canyon State Park. Some public recreation areas in the draft bill include Goblin State Park, expanded by 9,994 acres creating a 156,540 acre co-management area that protects resources and the recreation.

Next steps

The Ute Tribe is unhappy with the bill, saying in a statement that it largely ignores Utah’s Indian tribes. The Ute Tribal Business Committee, the governing body of the tribe, added that, “if Congressmen Bishop and Chaffetz did not want to fix land management problems on Indian lands they should have left our lands out of their bill. Instead, the bill proposes to take Indian lands and resources, to fix Utah’s problems.”

The mixed reviews were not unexpected by the PLI.

“It was a challenge with 65 proposals from lots of stakeholders to merge them all into a single cohesive document,” Ferguson said.

“The discussion draft is very much a first step. I was a little surprised about the environmental community negativity,” said Snider. “We have the counties at the table, but the environmental group pushback is very strong.”

Ferguson admits there will be policy questions. “It depends on your point of view – if you look from the far right it seems too big. If you look from the far left it seems smaller than their preferences.”

PLI began meeting with the nonprofits within days of the draft release, he said. “We’ve set some reasonable dates for feedback and expect we’ll have the bulk of our comments by Valentine’s Day. After that we’ll work to weigh all the different variables to get the final bill together.”

The congressional delegation hopes to be able to put the bill before Congress in March.

From February 2016. Read similar stories about .