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Op-ed: Long awaited PLI is a giveaway to counties and oil and gas industry

Published January 23, 2016 3:00 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

In the so-called Public Lands Initiative, Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz have grudgingly offered to protect as "wilderness" somewhat more acreage than the existing congressionally protected Wilderness Study Areas.

Unwilling to straightforwardly offer this extremely modest concession to protection, they insist that, in return, huge swaths of wild land be barred from future consideration for wilderness protection. They've even left a blank in the bill to insert a provision forbidding or greatly limiting any U.S. president's authority to use the Antiquities Act to designate a national monument in the affected counties.

The wilderness established in their bill has no water rights and can never receive Class 1 air quality designation to protect its pristine air. All the thousands of dubious and contested road claims in the region will be "settled" by granting rights-of-way to the state of Utah. Grazing is king: Cattle numbers can be increased but never decreased, no matter the damage, and ranchers are guaranteed motorized access to develop water projects and build fences.



In the kind of telling detail that characterizes the bill, one provision allows for helicopter use in wilderness to "maintain healthy wildlife populations." In plain English, that means aerial shooting of coyotes and other predators.

Much of the area outside of this so-called wilderness is established as "energy zones" where the top priority is developing oil and gas, coal and other minerals. Environmental reviews are "streamlined" and public involvement curtailed. For oil and gas, management returns to Bush-era land use plans. Obama master leasing plans, designed to rationalize where and how drilling occurs, go out the window.

State and federal lands are exchanged, not on a value-for-value basis, but on a rough acre-for-acre basis, with the state somehow mysteriously getting 40,000 more acres than it gives up, despite the fact that Utah is relinquishing scattered sections in the wildest country and receiving blocs of land rich in energy resources and other development potential.

Not content with this giveaway of the public's resources, Bishop and Chaffetz also gift the state the land for the proposed southern extension of the controversial Book Cliffs highway, connecting hydrocarbon-saturated lands in the Uinta Basin through some of America's wildest country to Interstate 70 and the transcontinental railroad. This poises the bill to be a climate disaster in addition to its many affronts to the Wilderness Act.

Last of all, in San Juan County, where nobody but county residents was allowed to suggest how America's public lands should be used, the bill proposes a Bears Ears National Conservation Area roughly three-quarters the size of the one proposed by the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Ute Mountain Ute and Uintah and Ouray Ute, and jettisons the tribal collaborative management requested by the tribes. It encourages energy development, gifts key lands to the county and is crisscrossed with roads that allow looting of antiquities. It is an affront that Bishop and Chaffetz appropriated the proud Bears Ears name from the tribes' vastly more visionary proposal.

Bishop and Chaffetz are strident and unapologetic anti-environmental partisans, so this disastrous bill is not really a surprise. After all their talk about a new approach and some genuine progress, they decided in late 2014 that they weren't willing to work for compromise anymore. Instead, over the last 15 months, they've been cooking up this mess with their natural constituents.

One wishes that they'd simply called off this ugly charade rather than pretending to develop some kind of grand bargain. The only bargain here is that the counties, energy developers, ranchers and off-road vehicle crowd get their dreams come true, and all other Americans get the shaft.

Bill Hedden is the executive director of the Grand Canyon Trust. He lives Grand County.

 

 

 

 

 

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