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How one of Utah’s lawmakers is battling federal agencies over state lands

Rep. John Curtis says federal management of Bears Ears National Monument shows there’s a better way for Congress to deal with public lands

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U.S. Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, sits in a meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on March 28, 2023.

U.S. Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, sits in a meeting with the executive director and assistant director of the Conservative Climate Caucus on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, March 28, 2023.

T.J. Kirkpatrick, for the Deseret News

Rep. John Curtis oversaw the advancement of three bills in the last two weeks aimed at asserting local control over public lands, as he wades deeper into the debate over who knows best when it comes to land management.

The three separate pieces of legislation are similar in that each seeks to restrict the location of public lands within Utah or curtail the authority of federal agencies to determine how these lands are used.

Curtis says what ties the bills together is a skepticism of federal agencies’ ability to manage public lands and a belief that local stakeholders, including city officials, tribal leaders and ranchers are often better stewards of the land than distant bureaucrats. 

“The common thread is a management from Washington, D.C., of something that’s very, very important to us by people who, in most cases, have never been here,” Curtis told the Deseret News. 

The bills include: 

  • The Protecting America’s Rock Climbing (PARC) Act, which would require federal agencies to issue guidelines reaffirming recreational climbing — including the placement of permanent anchors — as an allowable activity in designated wilderness areas and to announce a public comment period before taking any significant action related to climbing access.
  • Legislation requiring the Bureau of Land Management to withdraw a proposed rule that would allow portions of public lands to be leased for conservation purposes, preventing future recreational, agricultural or residential development in the area.
  • And a bill that would allow the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, an agency responsible for generating public school revenue, to exchange over 150,000 acres of land within the expanded Bears Ears National Monument for an equal amount of more profitable land currently controlled by the Bureau of Land Management. 

Since he was first elected in 2017 to represent Utah’s 3rd Congressional District, which includes Sandy, Draper, the Provo-Orem area and the eastern half of the state, Curtis has sponsored 13 bills related to the use of public lands. Curtis was recently ranked the ninth most effective Republican congressman by the Center for Effective Lawmaking. And in both the 117th and 118th congress, Curtis’s effectiveness was ranked highest with bills related to public land management. 

He says this emphasis comes, in part, from the fact that between 60% and 70% of the state is public land managed by federal agencies, with that number exceeding 90% in some of the counties he represents. 

“I’m representing the very, very good people in my district who for decades and decades and decades have managed these lands in a way that has been environmentally sensitive, has been sensitive to the antiquities and everything else that’s important in managing these lands,” Curtis said. “And yet people from Washington, D.C., frequently will want to intervene and say, ‘We know better.’”

The most egregious example of this, Curtis said, was the designation of the Bears Ears National Monument under former President Barack Obama in 2016. 

Curtis: How federal agencies get it wrong

Despite decades of work on the part of local Utahns to balance “protection with recreation, with grazing with extraction,” Curtis says that Bears Ears, which is in his district, was commandeered by a federal agency that lacks the staff and know-how to manage the land safely and beneficially for the local community. 

“It’s a perfect example of how the federal government doesn’t have the resources, doesn’t have the knowledge, the skill set,” Curtis said, claiming that the area of 1.3 million acres is now managed by just two Bureau of Land Management agents. “These people, most of them, have not even been to the area. How do they know what it takes to manage it?”

As a member of Congress, Curtis says there are a number of tools he has to achieve the proper balance between federal and local control of public lands. In addition to legislative solutions, his position on the House Natural Resources Committee as vice chair of the federal lands subcommittee provides a platform to highlight ways Utahns have successfully managed lands and ways federal agencies can work together with, instead of in opposition to, local residents. 

In a March 28 federal lands subcommittee hearing on his bill to ensure fixed-bolt climbing access, Curtis explained that the victims of federal agency overreach are often public lands’ most committed conservationists. 

“This bill is critical to protect access to popular climbing (routes) in wilderness areas on federal lands, creating a predictable standard for the rock climbing community who has been using wilderness areas since their inception, and if I might say so, are among our most predictable caretakers of these wilderness areas,” Curtis said.

The PARC Act has been endorsed by the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance which said in a statement that, “Climbers care deeply about public lands and wilderness areas and appreciate Rep. Curtis’ leading out on this important issue.”

The bill was approved unanimously by the subcommittee on federal lands on June 21 and will now head to the House floor for a vote, as will the bill requiring the Bureau of Land Management to rescind its rule creating a new “conservation” designation for public lands.

The proposed “Plan to Guide the Balanced Management of Public Lands” provides tools for the BLM to “conserve important wildlife habitat and intact landscapes” through “conservation leasing.” However, in contradiction to the bureau’s claim that the rule is consistent with its multiple use mission, Curtis says the proposed rule would allow activists to further restrict access to Utah’s public lands. 

“The BLM’s proposed rule would undermine the livelihoods of Utah’s farmers, ranchers, recreation businesses, and more,” Curtis said in a statement. “In a state that has so much natural beauty to share, this rule attempts to lock up those precious lands that should be open and accessible to the public.”

Curtis’s bill was co-sponsored by 19 members of the House Western Caucus, including Reps. Blake Moore, of Utah’s 1st Congressional District, Chris Stewart, of Utah’s 2nd, and Burgess Owens, of Utah’s 4th. 

It has been opposed by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, a nonprofit focused on wilderness preservation, which released a statement saying that the bureau’s rule “sets forth a framework that will make public lands more resilient to the impacts of a rapidly changing climate and puts conservation on par with extractive uses that have long taken precedence.”

However, Curtis’s less controversial effort to consolidate federal land holdings within the Bears Ears National Monument in exchange for higher value acres being given to Utah’s School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration has garnered the support of both the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and the Bears Ears Commission, a coalition of Native American tribal leaders. 

Following a federal lands subcommittee hearing, the bill is now scheduled for a natural resources committee vote. 

Can Congress do a better job than the president?

But Curtis clarified that while the exchange is a win-win for Utahns, making it easier for federal agents to manage Bears Ears and for Utah to generate revenue for public schools, his bill does not codify the monument. 

In a June 15 hearing, Curtis said of Bears Ears, “Nothing good has come out of that designation for the land in Utah, for the local tribes and for the people who participate in this land. … In the West, we know far better how to manage these lands, and have done better for decades and decades than any bureaucrat on the East Coast could ever imagine, or ever dream of managing these lands.”

Because the Bears Ears National Monument was established through executive authority, not that of Congress, Obama’s successor, former President Donald Trump, was able to shrink its boundaries by 80%. Then, when President Joe Biden entered office, he expanded it slightly beyond its Obama-era size.

The way to manage public lands correctly, Curtis said, is exemplified by a bill he introduced over five years ago and was signed by Trump in 2019: The Emery County Public Land Management Act. The bill established the San Rafael Swell Recreation Area and Jurassic National Monument, expanded Goblin Valley State Park and secured 100,000 acres of school trust land. 

Managing public lands through congressional statute instead of executive order allows stakeholders to feel heard, ensures appropriate resources are allocated to meet the area’s management needs and creates boundaries and standards that won’t change from administration to administration, Curtis said.

“If we really wanted to do something significant at Bears Ears, we’d do it legislatively,” Curtis said. “We were able to do it in Emery County and I think we could do it in Bears Ears, but we need the administration to switch gears and say, ‘Let’s work toward that’ instead of executive action.”