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Washington • While the Obama administration may still consider naming a national monument in the Bears Ears region of southeastern Utah, it is urging the state's congressional delegation to move swiftly on a long-awaited measure intended to strike a broad compromise on public lands preservation and development.
White House officials met with the Utah delegation recently to get an update on the Public Lands Initiative, which sponsors say they will formally introduce "very soon" to try to head off any unilateral action by President Barack Obama during his final months in office. While not giving any timelines, the White House stressed the importance of a congressional solution that can win support of an array of stakeholders, including American Indian tribes.
"[They] encouraged the delegation to continue working to improve their proposal and urged them to listen to community members and tribes regarding this important issue," a White House official told The Salt Lake Tribune on condition of anonymity because of the private nature of the discussion.
Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican and chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, says he plans to introduce his Public Lands Initiative (PLI) so far circulated only as a draft in the House "very soon," possibly within the next two weeks, and that only a few issues are holding up the formal language. Part of that is waiting on the Obama administration to come back with elements it wants to see in the bill, Bishop said.
Otherwise, the congressman adds, "I'm ready to move forward."
If the White House pre-empts, congressional action by designating a Bears Ears National Monument, as some are calling for, Bishop says Utah's delegation will be prepared to respond.
The members would immediately introduce a "bill of dissolution," which would aim to essentially repeal such a monument.
The PLI measure has been a long time coming and some wonder whether the yearslong delay, with the clock running out on the Obama presidency, exposes the lack of a good-faith effort to actually find a compromise.
An intertribal coalition pushing for protection of Bears Ears and its rich archaeological resources pulled out of talks with Bishop and San Juan County leaders late last year, saying the negotiators were not taking American Indian concerns seriously. They began petitioning, instead, for the president to wield his power under the Antiquities Act to designate a 1.9 million-acre national monument.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell is expected to visit the Bears Ears area this summer, and public meetings may be held to gauge feedback on a possible monument.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah and a co-sponsor of the PLI, says he understands there is pressure for the bill to move and that the delegation knows the danger of further delays.
"I have no doubt that they're working on a monument," Chaffetz said of the administration. "I think the only reason it hasn't been done yet is because of the PLI."
The draft bill would affect some 18 million acres of public land in seven Utah counties, creating 41 new wilderness areas, expanding Arches National Park and establishing an 867-acre Jurassic National Monument. Additionally, some 14 national conservation areas with fewer restrictions than a monument would be formed, covering Bears Ears, White River, Diamond Mountain, the San Rafael Swell, Labyrinth Canyon, Book Cliffs and Nine Mile Canyon.
The measure, in its draft version, also would convey title to the state to thousands of disputed road segments, prohibit future Antiquities Act designation in the seven counties and release nearly 81,000 acres from wilderness-study area protection. The proposal would strip away impediments to oil and gas development across millions of acres.
Conservation groups say the latter provisions are "poison pills" that would doom the bill from gaining support.
If Bishop and Chaffetz can pull together support, and quickly finalize a bill, they would still have little time to push the legislation. The House adjourns July 15 for summer break, returning for a month in September and then is out again until after the Nov. 8 general election. The Senate will have a few more days in session than the House.
Mike Matz, director of the U.S. public lands project at The Pew Charitable Trusts, says it's clear the administration wants action and the window is closing.
"The best way they can indicate to the administration that they're serious about this is get into the maw of the process," Matz said. "Get a bill introduced and get a hearing."
Josh Ewing, executive director of the Friends of Cedar Mesa, says his group has worked with the Utah federal delegation on the PLI and hopes it can forge a plan that will earn its support. But, he adds, the group wants to see the formal bill before it can gauge whether the delegation is being serious.
"We're hopeful that a legislative solution could be reached," Ewing said. "We're confident that the delegation has time to put a good bill together and get it passed if [it] made it a huge priority. They have the juice to do it right if they're willing to do it right. That said, if they're not able to put together a solution, we fully support the president creating a national monument before the end of his term if Congress can't get the job done."
For his part, Bishop says that if the White House names a national monument, it would do so without the local support it has said would warrant such a move.
"So I think they will think twice about actually doing something because it would put a lie to all of their supposed claims of rationale for doing those types of actions," Bishop said. "It would also mean that what we're doing is totally screwed. It would stop PLI in its tracks. I think they'll think very deeply about that."