Phil Taylor, E&E reporter

Published: Monday, July 1, 2013

PARK CITY, Utah — Rep. Rob Bishop warned Friday that proposals to designate a national monument in the Beehive State could spoil his efforts to pass legislation balancing conservation, recreation and energy development on federal lands.

The Utah Republican, who would play a key role should the House attempt to pass lands bills in the 113th Congress, said the stakeholders he is working with in six eastern Utah counties are wary of the potential for President Obama to designate a large national monument in the state.

“I need certainty. My local governments are asking for certainty,” Bishop told an audience at the Western Governors’ Association annual conference here.

The meeting at the Deer Valley Resort included a handful of top Interior Department officials, county and state representatives, environmentalists and energy executives.

“I’m trying to get my local counties to try to work to some kind of a bargain in which we can solve these problems of having wilderness and specific recreation areas as well as jobs and money for our schools,” Bishop said. “But to be honest, they are very critical and skittish about doing so if they think in some way they can do some kind of a deal and the president with the stroke of a pen can establish with the Antiquities Act a monument on top of it.”

Bishop, the chairman of the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation, has strongly criticized Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune’s remarks in Moab earlier this month that he is “100 percent” certain the president will declare a national monument surrounding Canyonlands National Park.

Conservation groups including the Sierra Club and Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance are urging the president to protect 1.4 million acres of Bureau of Land Management lands from “rampant off-road vehicle abuse” and proposed uranium and oil sands development. The area contains impressive geologic formations, 10,000-year-old archaeological sites and prime hiking trails, SUWA said.

Those same lands are on the table in Bishop’s public lands initiative, which has engaged county commissioners, energy developers, motorized recreationists and conservation groups.

National monuments, regardless of merit, are controversial in Utah, where President Clinton in 1996 declared the 1.9-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument with relatively little consultation with the public.

The Obama administration has taken public comment and garnered the support of local officials and their lawmakers before designating all of the nine monuments it has created so far.

Bishop has introduced a bill that would make such consultation mandatory by requiring national monument designations be subject to National Environmental Policy Act reviews.

“All we want is openness and transparency,” Bishop said. “I mean, good god. It’s land, it’s not Verizon.”

Bishop said talks among public lands stakeholders have gone “amazingly well” and that he intends to soon introduce a bill that would allow the state to better consolidate its lands for economic development.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in a keynote speech to the meeting earlier that day said she would listen closely to the residents, who she said know the public lands best.

“What I’ve said to members of the House and Senate when I’ve met with them is I will be their partner in the process of identifying what do people want from a grass-roots level to happen to these lands,” she told reporters later in the day. “Which are special? Which are sacred to tribes? Which are highest potential for oil and gas?”

She also expressed interest in opportunities to swap federal lands with state parcels, particularly those that may lie within federal conservation areas.

The checkerboard pattern of land ownership in the West — where state trust lands are often surrounded by federal areas — makes management tricky, Jewell said. Acquiring inholdings in national parks would be of particular interest, she added.

Conservationists are pushing Obama to designate landscape-scale monuments in a handful of Western states, including the 1.4-million-acre Greater Canyonlands proposal in Utah.

They argue Congress has not passed any new wilderness or significant conservation bills for more than four years.

“We can’t take any means to protect these iconic red rock wild lands off the table — including the power of the president to declare the Greater Canyonlands region a national monument,” said Stephen Bloch, an attorney for SUWA. “The Greater Canyonlands region of Utah is a remarkable landscape that desperately needs protection from out-of-control off-road vehicle use, mineral extraction and energy development.”

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