This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
It has critics on the left and right. The counties involved could back out. Congress could let it die a slow death. And, in the end, President Barack Obama could name a new national monument in Utah.
The public-lands compromise that has been three years in the making actually could pass. What might that mean? That's what Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, wanted to talk about Monday when he met with The Salt Lake Tribune's editorial board.
He said the proposal would result in:
• Granting roughly 3.9 million acres of eastern Utah new federal protections in exchange for opening 365,000 acres in the Uinta Basin for oil and gas drilling.
• Expanding Arches National Park by 50,000 acres to include land adjacent to Delicate Arch that the federal government once tried to lease for oil development.
• Upgrading Dinosaur National Monument to a national park.
• Turning the Cleveland-Lloyd dinosaur-fossil quarry, the biggest concentration of Jurassic bones on the planet, into the "Jurassic National Monument." But only if Emery County agrees in votes expected to take place in early September.
Those are among the highlights in a massive seven-county proposal that Chaffetz and Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, have negotiated with county commissioners, environmentalists, outdoor enthusiasts, ranchers and oil companies. They intend to unveil their proposal in the coming weeks and envision a "kumbaya" moment in which Democrats join with Republicans to quickly pass their legislation.
"I just don't believe somebody has to win and somebody else has to lose," Chaffetz said of the complex negotiations. "I think we can create a win-win, and that's what we are trying to do."
Often called the "grand bargain," though Bishop and Chaffetz refer to it as the "public-lands initiative," they see it as a chance to end decades of feuding in these rural counties. The key, according to Chaffetz, is that if passed, no president could unilaterally create a national monument in these counties again. That guarantee would be written into the legislation. Without it, he said, the counties wouldn't go along with designating roughly 2 million acres of new wilderness and adding protection to another 1.9 million acres.
He knows that limiting the power of future presidents may give the president "heartburn," but there's an incentive for the White House to play ball.
"We can get more land designated and protected under this plan than that president could even dream of [through a monument]," Chaffetz said. "That's why, I think to [his] credit, the president hasn't done anything yet."
Utah politicos believe Obama is considering a national monument in San Juan County's Cedar Mesa area, piggybacking on the Bears Ears conservation proposal pushed by a coalition of 25 American Indian tribes, led by the Navajo.
The public-lands initiative would protect some of that area and give the Navajo joint management over 2,000 acres that hold a special meaning to the tribe.
Chaffetz's preview of the bill came four days after conservative state lawmakers and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) blasted the proposal.
Members of the state Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands on Thursday told congressional staffers pitching the plan that their compromise meant to end division would only make things worse.
"When you create wilderness, you create a problem for adjacent counties," said Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab. "You create Class I airsheds. It's a cop in your backyard waiting for you to do something wrong."
That wouldn't happen immediately. The Environmental Protection Agency confirms that creating new wilderness doesn't automatically create new airshed protections, that would take another congressional act.
Noel, along with Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, argue that the deal runs counter to the state's goal of suing the federal government to obtain total control over public lands in the state about 30 million acres. Chaffetz agrees with that aim and says that is a long-term plan not affected by this legislative proposal.
On the other end of the political spectrum, SUWA argued the plan remains light on conservation and gives too much power to county commissioners to oversee sensitive lands.
"We would love to see if we can reach an agreement," said Scott Groene, SUWA's executive director, "but we are worried this has really veered off the tracks."
Chaffetz has little patience for people on the political "extremes," who are still battling to win greater spoils in a fight that seems to have no end.
"There are a whole lot of reasons why it can get blown up, but this is the most optimistic, thorough plan to do something comprehensive, avoid a civil war and do something meaningful," Chaffetz said. "If people want to come blow it up for whatever reason, on either side of the aisle, shame on them. Be helpful and come to the table, as opposed to just being a bomb thrower and saying no to everything."
After Bishop and Chaffetz unveil their legislation, they'll give all of the interested parties time to offer last-minute tweaks, then they will use their positions as chairmen of House committees to seek a fast-track vote.
They will need the support of Utah Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee to get it through the Senate. Chaffetz said he's working to obtain the backing of Utah's other members of Congress. And he has been involved with meetings with the Interior Department and the White House to gain their support.
As he put it: "The timing is right to get 'er done."
A primer on the public-lands initiative
Who • Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz have worked with interested counties to develop a proposal that would end debate over what lands should be conserved and what could be developed.
Where • They have seven eastern Utah counties involved. They are Summit, Uintah, Duchesne, Carbon, Emery, Grand and San Juan.
When • The bill should be unveiled in the next couple of months, with a goal of passing it as soon as possible, since the Obama administration has threatened to create a national monument if it fails.