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U.S. House to vote Tuesday on historic lands bill

Rep. Rob Bishop says package would do more for Utah than Congress has delivered in a long time

CASTLE DALE — A bill hailed as the most sweeping public lands conservation measure in a decade is slated to get a vote by the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday.

The Natural Resources Management Act, which passed the Senate 92-8 on Feb. 12, includes several key Utah provisions such as establishing the new Jurassic National Monument in Emery County and the transformation of the Golden Spike National Historic Site into a national historical park.

That elevation in status will come just in time for the 150th anniversary celebration of the driving of the spike to observe completion of the nation's first transcontinental railroad in a remote area of Utah called Promontory.

Cole Wash in the San Rafael Swell in Emery County on Feb 23, 2019. The area has been designated as wilderness and for a new national monument under the proposed Natural Resources Management Act.
Cole Wash in the San Rafael Swell in Emery County on Feb 23, 2019. The area has been designated as wilderness and for a new national monument under the proposed Natural Resources Management Act.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The bill, which is more than 100 bills cobbled into one, will institute some of the most significant reforms to the Land and Water Conservation Fund by authorizing it in perpetuity but also by ensuring states receive 40 percent of the money.

The conservation fund uses offshore drilling revenue on national conservation efforts but also supports the setting aside of open space for local projects like city parks.

Key components of the bill also facilitate conveyances of federal land into state or other local ownership.

Overall, it results in a net reduction of 18,000 federal acres, while 2,300 acres will be conveyed to the federal government.

An example of those conveyances in Utah includes the 80-acre transfer of Bureau of Land Management land to the city of Hyde Park in Cache County for the construction of an underground water tank. Nephi picks up three acres of federal real estate.

In Utah, the bill also establishes 661,000 acres of new wilderness and 248,000 acres of new recreational areas.

It expands Goblin Valley State Park, sets up new management for the popular recreation area of San Rafael Swell and adds 63 miles of wild and scenic river designations in Utah.

The bill is a big win for hunting and angling enthusiasts for multiple reasons, including a provision that says hunting and fishing is allowed on federal lands unless otherwise specified.

"The public lands revolution is live — and it is growing," said Land Tawney, president and CEO of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. "If the House of Representatives follows the Senate’s lead and advances this significant package of conservation and access bills, we can celebrate with the knowledge that we the citizens have a voice — and it will not be denied.”

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who sponsored many of the bills dealing with some of the Utah-specific issues and negotiated many of the massive package's provisions, said the legislation is a win for Utah and the country.

"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. 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. This bill establishes monuments the right way and reforms (the Land and Water Conservation Fund) to the benefit of state and local governments and sportsmen," he said.

"This legislation promotes the richness of Utah’s history, empowers school children, and communicates a profound respect for local decision-making. While no legislation is ever perfect, I am perfectly content voting for this pro-Utah package.”

But not everyone is convinced the bill would solve land use conflicts with the federal government.

Emery County residents against the bill were out in force Saturday at a town hall meeting convened by Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah. The state's newest U.S. senator wasn't involved in the decadeslong negotiations over the bill, but he voted for it when it passed the Senate earlier this month.

"My vote was based on hearing from people who were representing the communities, saying, 'Hey, can we do this? It's the best deal we're going to be able to get," Romney said.

But several residents characterized the land bill as a defeat in a longstanding conflict with environmentalists. They contended that designating current wilderness study areas as formal wilderness or recreational areas doesn't provide certainty if federal land managers can still make the rules on how that land is used.

"I don't see recreation areas as the answer. I want to see wilderness come to an end. Why do we have to have a designation on every square inch of our ground. Why are we not at liberty to enjoy our American lands," said Wellington Mayor Joan Powell, as the crowd of about 60 residents applauded.

But Kash Winn, a 54-year-old resident of Ferron, Emery County, reminded the audience that they don't own much of the land in their county, and never have, and residents risk losing permission they have to use federal land for grazing or recreation by not supporting the bill that county officials have been hammering out for more than 20 years.

"I know we feel so passionate about (the land) being ours because we've been here" for generations, he said. "But the fact of the matter is we do have a little bit more leverage by hanging on to what we've got now. By going through this legislation we are going to tie some things up and buy some time. They won't be able to designate a new monument for quite a while."