U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, has begun a process he hopes will solve what he calls the “distrust and acrimony” between those with opposing views about how federal lands in southeast Utah should be used.
Bishop sent a letter in February to conservation groups, energy companies, county government representatives and others to get input about their land-use goals. It could lead to a bill in Congress as soon as this fall, Bishop’s communications director Melissa Subbotin said.
“We all don’t have the same vision for land use, but certainly we can find consensus for land to be set aside for conservation purposes and for natural resource development and recreation use,” she said.
Subbotin said the proposed legislation is not a reaction to last year’s call by the Outdoor Industry Association for President Obama to create a Greater Canyonlands National Monument.
“It’s not in direct response to anything,” she said. “Rob [Bishop] has talked for a long time about re-evaluating how we use federal land. For the past four years, it’s been a tug of war. Rob wants to start over and find a better way. We want to find common ground.”
Grand County Council members discussed Bishop’s idea during their regular meeting Tuesday, May 7. Council vice chairman Lynn Jackson, who has followed the issue closely, said he believes the result could be designation as a National Recreation Area.
The land, now under U.S. Bureau of Land Management control, would likely remain in that agency’s hands, he said.
“Bishop will have some maps out by mid-summer,” Jackson said.
During an interview Jackson said Grand County shouldn’t have a one-industry economy, whether it is tourism or mineral extraction. Just as people plan their retirement accounts with diverse investments, the local economy should include various industries to avoid a boom-and-bust cycle, he said.
Council chairman Gene Ciarus emphasized the council will have an important role in shaping potential legislation. The letter Bishop sent to the council said he envisions “a local, bottom-up, stakeholder-driven process.”
“This is going to be a Bishop land plan and we have to buy into it or there won’t be a plan,” Ciarus said.
Jackson said he wants to see Grand County’s recreational attractions protected to maintain tourism while also producing oil, gas and potash.
“There’s enough room for both,” he said.
Subbotin said there will be numerous opportunities for public comment as the legislation progresses. The project is at a very early stage, she emphasized.
Bishop’s letter outlines three goals:
• To bring greater land management certainty to the counties who seek it.
• To provide counties with tangible benefits in exchange for a willingness to designate lands within their border as wilderness.
• To resolve land designations where a consensus can be reached.
The congressman proposes using wilderness or other land designations as “currency.”
“If wilderness is designated in your county, you should receive some specific, tangible benefit for it,” Bishop wrote in the letter. “This benefit could be the upgrade and control over one or many roads, designation of zones for energy, timber and other resource development, lands transferred to county control for a new park or airport, or a new dedicated revenue stream to the county generated by swapping school trust lands in your county into more energy rich lands in other counties.”
About 12.6 million acres in Utah are currently set aside for national parks or monuments, wilderness or wilderness study areas, conservation areas or wild and scenic river corridors and U.S. Forest Service roadless areas, according to Subbotin.
She added that 4.3 million acres are leased from the BLM for oil and gas exploration. That means 36 percent of the state is protected from development while 12 percent is open to oil and gas drilling, Subbotin said.