And worse, it could lead to new wilderness designations in eastern Utah.
"When you create wilderness, you create a problem for adjacent counties," Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, told staffers of Bishop, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Sen. Mike Lee and Gov. Gary Herbert. "You create Class I airsheds. It's a cop in your backyard waiting for you to do something wrong."
Staffers of Utah's congressional delegation and the governor appeared before the Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands to provide an update on the public lands process, Bishop's framework for resolving long-standing land-use conflicts and giving industry, communities and conservationists "certainty" over which areas will be developed and which areas protected.
While several key counties opted not to participate, seven eastern counties have adopted proposals affecting 18 million acres of land administered by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. The proposals are the result of hundreds of meetings involving thousands of local stakeholders.
An eighth county, Daggett, adopted a plan in October that Herbert and Bishop held out as a model. But after a change in political leadership a few weeks later in the November election, the county withdrew its proposal and bowed out of the process.
Bishop's legislative director, Casey Snider, argued a successful process would not only bring certainty to public lands management, but would also forestall a national monument designation that is expected to come in the waning days of Barack Obama's tenure as president.
"There is a gun to the head of this state. That gun is loaded and it is wielded by the Obama administration," Snider said. "There are areas worthy of protection. The fact that they still exist speaks to the good stewardship by the people of Utah."
Snider said his boss and Chaffetz hope to stitch the counties' proposals into a legislative package in the coming weeks, but that still doesn't leave much time for Congress to act before Obama's term ends.
"I hope we are talking days. Washington doesn't work very fast," said Salt Lake City Democratic Sen. Jim Dabakis. "If this isn't done soon, you will have a president deciding."
State officials believe the president has his sights set on San Juan County's Cedar Mesa, the centerpiece of the 1.9-million-acre Bears Ears conservation proposal embraced by a coalition of 25 American Indian tribes led by the Navajo. Other suspected monument candidates include Greater Canyonlands in Grand and San Juan counties and San Rafael Swell in Emery County.
Many Utahns would regard another presidential use of the Antiquities Act as a catastrophe, pointing to the 1996 designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument's impact on Kane and Garfield counties. But many urban Utahns would welcome such a move, according to Dabakis, who opposes Utah's land transfer campaign.
"It bothers me when you talk in terms of 'we.' 'We don't want monuments and we want this energy,'" he said. "I represent people who want monuments. You are not representing everyone in Utah when you say those things."
Conservationists are frustrated 95 percent of Utahns were excluded from the Bishop process after rural county commissioners declined to take input from those who lived outside their counties.
As a result, most of the counties' proposals lack a strong conservation component, even though environmental groups were initially invited to participate, according to Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. He noted that public lands bills almost never pass Congress without the blessing of the conservation community.
"If the bill goes with the county proposals, it will just be the same fight we have been having for the past 20 years," Groene said. "We would love to see if we can reach an agreement, but we are worried this has really veered off the tracks."
Environmentalists suspect the process will fail because it grants what amounts to veto power to rural politicians who are ideologically opposed to conservation.
Cody Stewart, Herbert's energy adviser, said the Bishop process remains on track and is compatible with Utah winning control over the 31 million acres envisioned by land transfer proponents.
"There are 518 days left in the Obama administration. What is the best thing we can do to prevent bad things from happening in our state?" Stewart asked. "The transfer is the long-term approach. There is nothing in this bill that hinders the transfer."
But Rep. Ken Ivory, a leading transfer champion, disagreed.
"Our mandate is to secure the transfer. How does our coordination with you accomplish our objective?" the West Jordan Republican asked. "If we create more wilderness, we are inviting more ... paramilitary to enforce wilderness. We are contracting the liberty of our people."