Representatives Rob Bishop (R-UT) and Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) released a long-awaited public lands bill Wednesday that, if passed, would affect 18 million acres of public lands in Eastern Utah. The proposal would downgrade protections for wilderness quality lands in the region, create new oil and gas drilling zones that are exempted from environmental protections, and hand over large areas of national public lands to private and state control.
The Public Lands Initiative (PLI) has been on Representative Bishop’s agenda for over three years. At its inception, Bishop said the plan was intended to create comprehensive, “locally-driven” public lands legislation “rooted in the belief that conservation and economic development can coexist” and to resolve land disputes in the region. Planning for the bill included significant outreach to several stakeholders including tribes, conservationists, sportsmen and women, the oil and gas industry, and county officials, among others.
However, over the past several months there have been many significant changes made to the bill, turning it from a gesture of compromise to a divisive bill that includes Bundy-style public land giveaways, pseudo-wilderness protections, accelerated oil and gas development, and the marginalization of several original stakeholder groups.
“The draft Public Lands Initiative bill is an extreme and deceptive attack on our nation’s public lands that does little for conservation,” said the Center for Western Priorities in a statement. “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.”
Some of the most controversial elements of the bill are provisions that would give the state of Utah full ownership of nearly 40,000 acres of national public lands, according to an analysis by the Center for Western Priorities. Other land seizure elements of the bill include public land “disposals” in Emery County and a contentious land “exchange” program. Not only are these types of public land takeovers not supported by western voters, they make lands that are otherwise open for all Americans to use vulnerable to being sold to the highest bidder.
The land transfer provisions in Bishop’s bill echo recent land seizure demands made by Ammon Bundy and the group of armed extremists who recently took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. In fact, critics argue that anti-public lands rhetoric like that used by Rob Bishop has helped make space for the Bundys to use their extremist tactics and make the demands they have made.
Though the Bishop bill would designate nearly 2.2 million new acres as wilderness, these lands would be exempted from key protections in the Wilderness Act. The bill mandates, for example, that grazing of livestock continue in all areas where it is currently permitted, without any flexibility to adapt to changing range conditions or environmental degradation. Wilderness lands in the bill would also be prohibited from being designated as a “Class I airshed” — meaning that these lands, and the wildlife, vegetation and recreationists within them will not be protected from air pollution from the oil and gas drilling that will be allowed up to the edge of the wilderness areas.
Additionally, the bill would loosen protections on some wilderness study areas by making them available for commercial and industrial uses.
“The draft PLI is an un-wilderness bill,” Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said in a statement. “Effectively, less wilderness would be protected in Utah if this bill passed than what is currently managed for the public.”
A designation for the Bears Ears conservation area was another highly-anticipated aspect of this bill. The Bears Ears area in San Juan County contains several Native American cultural and sacred sites and tribes have worked to maintain these lands. While the bill does include parts of this request, tribal leaders argue that it does not go far enough to fully protect the estimated 100,000 cultural sites in the area.
“If Congressman Bishop and Chaffetz did not want to fix land management problems on Indian lands, then they should have left our lands out of their bill,” began the Ute Tribal Business Committee, one of 25 tribal organizations participating in the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. “Instead, the bill proposes to take Indian lands and resources, to fix Utah’s problems.”
About a month before the release of this bill the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition pulled out of Bishop’s initiative after having “been consistently stonewalled” in the process. Instead, several tribes have asked President Obama to create a 2 million acre national monument for the area.
Under the guise of collaboration and the creation of new public lands, Rep. Bishop has crafted a bill complete with loopholes, land seizures, and favors for his financial supporters in the fossil fuel sector.
Jenny Rowland is the Research and Advocacy Associate for the Public Lands Project at Center for American Progress. You can follow her on Twitter @jennyhrowland