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Bishop and Chaffetz propose a "grand bargain" for public lands

rob bishop, jason chaffetz, public lands

Two Utah congressmen say they are well on their way to forging a historic “grand bargain,” in which “the pie would be divvied up,” the pie being publicly owned lands in Eastern Utah.

Friday night, Congressmen Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz were in Moab, halfway through a tour of Eastern Utah counties. They are promoting legislation they hope will eliminate the prospect of a Greater Canyonlands national monument, and pave the way for new development. Congressman Chaffetz addressed a large, mixed crowd that sported both “Sagebrush Rebel” T-shirts and “Protect Wild Utah” buttons.

“Capital is resistant to making investment when there is uncertainty.  If they want to develop energy, and we could and we should be developing energy, in Grand County and in the state of Utah, we should be self-sufficient, I think we can do it in an environmentally friendly way,” said Chaffetz.

The Republicans’ proposed grand bargain puts seemingly everything on the table: new wilderness, mining and drilling designations, land swaps including federal and School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) lands, even the longstanding disputes over federal land ownership and roadless areas. Chaffetz says the hope is to in the coming weeks craft a vast and intricate compromise that would have to be approved at no less than three levels of government.

At this point we’re looking at five to six counties that may participate in this. We’re trying to get the counties on board. If we can get the counties then we want to get the state on board. The idea and the goal at least to try and have a first draft before the snow falls.

At the federal level, Congressman Rob Bishop has been pressing the case with Sally Jewell, President Obama’s new Interior Secretary, who Bishop has previously accused of having a “radical political agenda.”

“We have also kept the Interior Department well aware of what we are trying to do, and Secretary Jewell knows our efforts, knows our approach, and has been
very supportive, even offering some resources to help move it forward,” Bishop said.

moab, public lands, chaffetz, bishop
A crowd gathers in Moab to listen to Chaffetz and Bishop discuss public lands, and a "grand bargain" to make lands work for the people.

For the past few months, behind the scenes, the idea of a grand bargain has been broached to constituent groups and local officials. Bishop said hundreds of meetings have been held.  

“I think both sides are realizing they can actually win something out of this. And to be honest, I am actually surprised about that. Everyone still wants to be part of the process,” Bishop said. “So some of the interest groups that are out there have actually propose things where they’ve backtracked from earlier commitments that they had, earlier desires. And I think they realized no one’s going to get everything they want. But there can be some really good things that happen for a whole lot of people.”

Bishop and Chaffetz are unlikely champions of new wilderness, having staunchly opposed it in the past: both congressmen get a League of Conservation Voters score of 9 out of 100, and both have long pressed for giving federal lands to Utah. But they have gained, to some, a surprising amount of trust with Utah environmentalists. Scott Groene is director of SUWA, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

“We’re enthusiastic about this being an opportunity to take a number of positive steps to protect a significant amount of wilderness, and hopefully have a land exchange that will both increase revenues for school kids while protecting the federal back country. If there is a significant amount of the right land protected it would end the need for a Greater Canyonlands National Monument.  That’s one of the ways people can get certainty here, is to sort of eliminate the pressing needs to protect areas around the Dirty Devil, White Canyon, Labyrinth Canyon, by all working together to see if we can protect those areas with legislation,” Groene said.

Groene allows it would be a “daunting task” to get enabling legislation passed in Congress, for what is still just a concept that hasn’t even been put to paper. Delegates from the other 49 states have yet to weigh in, but Bishop could hold considerable sway as chair of the House Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation.

Grand County council member Lynn Jackson is among the local officials in Utah who have embraced the Bishop/Chaffetz proposal.

“This uncertainty makes it difficult to attract industries of all types to our area, unsure if their investment may be at risk. My interest is in assuring our future provides the diversity of economy and jobs that takes advantage of all our natural resources. And we can do this without damaging or destroying our fundamental base resource of scenic and visual beauty,” Jackson said.

Originally from Wyoming, Jon Kovash has practiced journalism throughout the intermountain west. He was editor of the student paper at Denver’s Metropolitan College and an early editor at the Aspen Daily News. He served as KOTO/Telluride’s news director for fifteen years, during which time he developed and produced Thin Air, an award-winning regional radio news magazine that ran on 20 community stations in the Four Corners states. In Utah his reports have been featured on KUER/SLC and KZMU/Moab. Kovash is a senior correspondent for Mountain Gazette and plays alto sax in “Moab’s largest garage band."