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Bishop public lands proposal unveiled, already sparking criticism

SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. Rob Bishop's Public Lands Initiative bill, due to be officially released Wednesday, promises new conservation areas, new wilderness designations, protection for prime hunting and angling areas, as well as energy and recreation zones.

Among its many provisions, built over three years of collaboration with conservationists, sportsmen, county and Native American leaders, energy and mining industry representatives, recreationists and agricultural interests, are:

• Establishes 40 new wilderness areas in Utah covering 2.2 million acres.

• Establishes up to 375,000 acres in Grand and San Juan counties as “recreation zones.”

• Expedites mineral leasing and development on certain public lands.

• Expands Arches National Park

• Creates a new national monument at the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry.

• Establishes 14 National Conservation Areas — including Bears Ears in San Juan County, and aims to exclude the seven eastern Utah counties from any large-scale monument designation, a component Bishop has pushed from the outset.

But one group is already lashing out at the proposal based on components of a Jan. 8 draft they obtained and began distributing Tuesday. Aaron Weiss, spokesman for the Center for Western Priorities, said the proposal represents an "insidious attack" on public lands and does little for conservation.

"The number of strings he attaches there makes it nothing like a wilderness designation," Weiss said. "It is a designation in name only, and that alone makes the bill a nonstarter."

The 63-page discussion draft is to be unveiled at the Utah State Capitol by Bishop and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, at a press conference with Utah Gov. Gary Herbert Wednesday morning, but the center distributed its copy early, accompanied by harsh language designed to temper any enthusiasm.

Lee Lonsberry, Bishop's spokesman, said there would be no comment Tuesday, adding that Bishop will address any concerns at the press conference and not in reaction to the center's press release.

"Congressman Bishop will make himself available to any questions at the press conference on Wednesday and will address any concerns when he unveils the discussion draft," Lonsberry said.

Weiss said that the Bishop proposal mandates grazing continue in wilderness areas at current levels, ignores Native American tribes' request for a Bears Ears National Monument and opens up disputed roads or routes to motorized travel.

He also criticized what he characterized as a "giveaway" to the state in the form of a new state forest and accelerates the timeline for the oil, gas and mining industries by narrowing the windows for protests and appeals.

Bishop has said all along that no one will be completely happy with his bill — that everyone will get something and no one will get everything they asked for.

Other supporters have cautioned, too, that groups unwilling to compromise should not be allowed to derail the effort before the bill is released and its provisions thoroughly analyzed.

According to the Colorado-based center — which describes itself as a nonprofit nonpartisan organization devoted to Western lands' issues — Bishop's bill preserves grazing numbers under a status quo — regardless of environmental impacts complicated by drought — and allows for energy development on those lands not currently protected or covered under protections in the bill.

Bishop, a Utah republican who is chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, has been working on the Public Lands Initiative proposal for three years, sifting through dozens of detailed proposals for various land uses in Carbon, Duchesne, Emery, Grand, San Juan, Summit and Uintah counties covering 18 million acres.

The land uses Bishop has said will be tackled in the legislation include grazing, oil and gas development, recreation, such as off-highway trails and mountain climbing, and outdoor sporting activities, such as big-game hunting and angling.

Some environmental groups have noted that Bishop's plan to exclude new monument designations by use of the Antiquities Act by the U.S. president will doom the proposal, while others have questioned what "form" Bishop's proposed protections will take.

Counties, too, have been watching the process with anticipation and some wariness over fear fragile agreements might crumble — or be modified to their detriment — as the process plays out.

The draft bill obtained by the Center for Western Priorities sets up 14 National Conservation Areas, including nearly 1.2 million acres for the Bears Ears area in San Juan County.

Bishop pushed for the conservation designation rather than a national monument sought by a coalition of Native American tribes because he said it offers greater flexibility for multiple uses, including access by tribes to participate in sacred ceremonies and gather firewood and herbs.

The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, which lobbied in Washington, D.C., for monument designation, pulled out of the Public Lands Initiative talks in December, citing lack of communication and not being taken seriously by Utah's congressional delegation.

According to the copy released by the center, the draft does attempt to solve a number of long-standing disputes involving public land issues that have dogged agencies for decades, if not centuries.

The School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, according to the leaked copy, gets to trade out lands and consolidate its holdings. SITLA officials have said more than 300,000 acres will be put into one block in an exchange that will trade the revenue-building agency into more optimal lands for energy development and out of acreage valued for its recreation or scenic qualities.

That trade component also brought the ire of Weiss' group, which they said lacked a "valuation clause," giving rise to the assertion that the state will get the better end of the bargain.

Cabin owners in a dispute with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation over shoreline property adjacent to Scofield Reservoir are promised relief in the leaked bill in a provision that gives them title to their property as long as they absolve the federal government of any flooding liability.

There are a number of other provisions — an expansion of Arches National Park to protect Delicate Arch, the creation of a 93-mile Red Rock Country OHV trail and an expansion of Goblin Valley State Park by 10,000 acres, according to the leaked draft. It also sets up a co-managed area in the San Rafael Swell area of 156,000 acres to be run by the BLM and the state to better manage the visitor experience and protect natural resources in the heavily visited region.

Despite the early criticism, one group issued a press release late Tuesday expressing its encouragement at the draft being made public after years of collaboration and "building consensus."

"In a time often characterized by rancor and rigid ideology surrounding public lands issues, Congressman Bishop’s Public Lands Initiative is an encouraging development,” said Andy Rasmussen, Utah coordinator for Trout Unlimited Sportsmen Conservation Project.

“Collaboration is the best model for long-term protection of the American public’s resources, and we appreciate Congressman Bishop's commitment to that process," he added. "We are optimistic that the open dialogue and inclusive process will continue as we work toward a bill we can enthusiastically support.”


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