Additional environmental protection to public lands in Eastern Utah is almost certainly on its way. How much land is to be protected and at what level? That is yet to be determined.
In June, 2015, President Barack Obama designated three new national monuments in other areas of the United States that span more than one million acres. National monument status protects federal lands by restricting a wide range of activities, including mining.
President Obama designated the national monuments via the Antiquities Act (1906). The Act allows the Commander in Chief to designate public lands as national monuments.
Congressman Rob Bishop (R) of Utah hopes to find a legislative solution to the issue via the Public Lands Initiative (PLI). The initiative looks to designate and protect public lands in seven Utah counties. The initiative includes public land in San Juan, Summit, Duchesne, Uintah, Carbon, Emery, and Grand counties.
In addition to designation protection for millions of acres of public ground, the initiative would simultaneously ban the creation of new national monuments using the Antiquities Act.
Rep. Bishop along with Congressman Jason Chaffetz (R) of Utah presented a draft of the bill on January 20 at the Utah State Capitol.
The the draft reveals the work of three years and 1,200+ meetings amongst 120 interest groups. The proposal is divided into two divisions: “conservation” and “opportunity”.
Under conservation, the proposal would conserve 4,335,377 acres of federal land and 301 miles of rivers. As part of the preservation, the proposal would create 41 wilderness areas, which is the most restrictive federal land designation.
The PLI would additionally expand Arches National Park, extend national monument status to the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry, protect the Ashley Creek recreational area in Uintah County, and designate wild and scenic river designations throughout eastern Utah.
The opportunities division included in the act would release 80,000 acres that are currently designated as wilderness study areas. Another result of the act would be the creation of an off-highway vehicle (OHV) road that would stretch from Green River, UT to Grand Junction, CO.
Additionally the PLI would guarantee the protection of further economic development on public lands, including mining, oil and gas and other resource development.
Rep. Bishop said the act comes as a result of collaboration between environmental organizations, elected officials, and other interests groups.
San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams recognizes that the PLI doesn’t solve all of the issues of all of the groups at the table, but he does think the compromises are fair.
“Ultimately, because its federal land, the congressional people have to make some tough decisions,” said Adams of the compromises. “They have probably done some things that are actually pretty fair.”
However, with so many entities involved, some organizations have been disillusioned by the proposed legislation.
The Bears Ears Coalition, an organization dedicated to protecting the Bears Ears area in San Juan County, was involved at one point in the PLI but pulled their input and endorsement in December.
The Bears Ears Coalition, made up of members of the Navajo, Ute, Hopi, Zuni and other Native American tribes, hopes to protect the Bears Ears region, which is considered sacred by Native American tribes.
In a December letter to Congressmen Bishop and Chaffetz, the coalition cited lack of meeting deadlines as part of why they withdrew their support and input in the process.
The Bears Ears Coalition also expressed concern that their concerns are not taken seriously by the Congressmen.
As part of the protection to the land, the coalition desires a continuation of the traditional use of the land by Native Americans. The coalition desires that Native Americans be allowed to hunt, fish and gather wood in the Bears Ears area.
Supporters of the PLI legislative approach warn that if the land is designated a national monument via the Antiquities Act, none of those activities will be allowed without an amendment to the Antiquities Act.
Ultimately, the Bears Ears Coalition feels the Public Lands Initiative would not be satisfactory in protecting the Bears Ears area.
Commissioner Adams expressed his thoughts on the withdrawal of the Bears Ears Coalition, “The Bears Ears Coalition has been invited, and included in every discussion we’ve ever had. We recognize their needs and try to address them.”
Of the county leaders’ attempts to negotiate with the Coalition, Adams added, “We had hoped they would’ve been supportive of our proposal. It’s been quite disappointing to see their reaction.”
– Capital West News is a service of Brigham Young University’s communications students covering the Utah Legislature and other Utah news from a newsroom in Utah’s Capitol in Salt Lake City.