Editor's note: This updates throughout with details from the unveiling of the legislation in Salt Lake City on Wednesday.
Legislation that addresses the use of 18 million acres of public lands in Utah contains "something for everyone to like, and something for everyone to hate," U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop said Wednesday while publicly releasing the 65-page measure he believes can gain congressional passage this year.
Flanked by U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert during a short press conference in the Utah Capitol, Bishop, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, dismissed criticisms broadcast this week by environmental groups whom he said were working off old drafts of the bill. The current version, he said, achieves four key goals: It delivers conservation of public lands "in areas that deserve conservation status;" opens up areas for economic development; guarantees recreation, and; provides certainty that should bring an end to what the Utah Republican called "constant litigation and dogmatic battles."
According to the congressmen, the measure calls for protection or conservation of 4.3 million acres in the state; would provide 1.05 million acres "for new recreation and economic development opportunities;" calls for protection of 301 river miles under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act; would add 19,255 acres to Arches National Park; would creates the 897-acre Jurassic Age National Monument around the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry in Emery County, and; would consolidate 336,441 acres for the state School and Institutonal Trust Lands Administration, which generates revenues from acreage within the state to support education.
"This is a true effort to bring together disparate groups," said Congressman Chaffetz, who added a "shame on them" for radical environmental groups who said the bill was dead on arrival.
Gov. Herbert said the legislation represented the "fourth largest conservation bill in history," calling it "heavy lifting, but great work."
"There's a lot of good things in there," the governor said, saying the measure shouldn't be criticized because it doesn't provide every special interest group with everything they wanted.
On Tuesday the Center for Western Priorities was quick to criticize the legislation, saying it provided weak protections for proposed wilderness areas, provided "giveaways" to energy interests, and carried the potential to open up roadless areas in national parks and monuments.
"The draft Public Lands Initiative bill is an extreme and deceptive attack on our nation’s public lands that does little for conservation," the group said, referring to a Jan. 8 draft it had obtained. "The legislation is another ideological vehicle for Congressman Bishop to express his disdain for national public lands, rather than a true attempt at addressing diverse stakeholder needs."
Called the Utah Public Lands Initiative, the draft bill calls for creation of 41 wilderness areas, a dozen National Conservation Areas, and a 42,352-acre Books Cliffs Sportsmens National Conservation Area with a specific goal of encouraging hunting and fishing and to management wildlife habitat. Maps associated with the legislation can be found here.
While Native American tribes had wanted to see the legislation create a Bears Ears National Monument across nearly 2 million acres in southeastern Utah, the congressmen instead are proposing a 1.2-million-acre Bears Ears National Conservation Area. Additionally, they call for a four-person commission to advise the Interior secretary on managing the conservation area, with two of the four representing the state of Utah and the San Juan County Commission. The legislation specifically prohibits a federal employee from being named to the commission.
"It'd be just a crying shame if there was just a national monument designation," said Rep. Chaffetz, saying such a designation would greatly limit what activities could be conducted.
"Bears Ears is a huge swath of land," said the congressman, adding that he "takes great exception that we haven't heard Native Americans' wishes. ... Bears Ears was dealt with in a very responsible matter."
To demonstrate that there are provisions in the legislation that won't be welcome by all, Rep. Bishop noted that he was "never a fan of creating more wilderness in the first place."
"This is not what I would have done individually," he added.
At the Interior Department, officials said they looked forward to reviewing the measure and hearing what stakeholders had to say about it.
"There’s no doubt that southeastern Utah’s incredible natural and cultural resources are deserving of real protection and recognition, and we appreciate Congressmen Bishop and Chaffetz’s work to lead a conversation on this topic. Given the real risks these resources face, we share a sense of urgency to protect these special places for current and future generations," said DOI spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw. "It’s important that any proposal include meaningful conservation – both in name and practice – and that the land-management provisions do not roll back critical stewardship tools and authorities, such as the Antiquities Act. We remain concerned by the assertion from Tribes that their voices are not reflected in this proposal regarding their ancestral lands.
"While we don't provide official positions on discussion drafts such as this, we look forward to reviewing the details and hearing from the people of Utah, Tribes and other stakeholders in shaping a balanced vision for the future of these public lands."
National Park Service officials were not immediately available to comment Wednesday on the bill's provisions. Representatives for the National Parks Conservation Association were reviewing the legislation and had no immediate comment.
The legislation also would require the U.S. Department of Energy, which is spending upwards of $1 billion to clean up uranium tailings from a 480-acre site along the Colorado River at Moab, to transfer the land free of charge to Grand County once the job is done, which is expected around 2025.
The Center for Western Priorities took exception to how the proposed wilderness areas would be managed, noting that the draft legislation would allow grazing to continue in them, that they could not carry a Class I airshed designation, and that other lands in Utah that had been studied for potential wilderness designation would be "released" from such consideration.
It also was critical of the approach the draft legislation takes towards off-road vehicles, saying, "(T)he bill would open thousands of miles of dirt trails to motorized vehicles in eastern Utah, paving the way for vehicles to crisscross national monuments, national parks, and other conservation areas. As written, any county covered by the legislation could claim an historical right-of-way under an old law from 1866 called 'Revised Statute 2477' and those 'right-of-ways' would be opened to motorized traffic."
The draft does propose to designate various stretches of the Colorado, Dolores, Green, Dark Canyon, and San Juan rivers under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. It also would require the Bureau of Land Management, "without consideration," to transfer nearly 10,000 acres of land it manages to the state of Utah for addition to Goblin Valley State Park. Another land transfer from the BLM to the state would help create the Price Canyon State Forest, the first state forest in Utah.
Another 21 land conveyances from the federal government to the state of Utah, without any consideration in return, also are called for by the legislation. Those range from just 1 acre at the resort town of Park City to 15,379 acres at the Dugout Ranch northwest of Monticello to Utah State University.