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A former Interior secretary is challenging the need for a congressional inquiry into the management plans nearing completion for two national conservation areas in Washington County.

The House Natural Resources Committee, led by Utah's Rep. Rob Bishop, ordered the hearing after local officials complained that the Bureau of Land Management ignored their input in crafting its "preferred" alternatives, which do not include an alignment for a proposed highway across protected desert tortoise habitat.

In written testimony, former Secretary of the Interior Cecil Andrus said the establishment of the Red Cliffs and Beaver Dam Wash NCAs after a decade of collaboration is an outcome that ought to be celebrated. Instead it has devolved into yet another platform for anti-conservation politicians to heap derision on federal land management.

"Lambasting the BLM as they work to develop a plan according to the legislation is misguided," wrote Andrus, a two-time Idaho governor who headed the Department of the Interior under President Jimmy Carter. "The committee is no doubt aware of the growing hostility to federal land managers in the West. This hostility and the overheated rhetoric coming from certain elected officials is counterproductive and places public servants in potentially volatile and dangerous situations that serve no constructive purpose."

Bishop will host a field oversight hearing, titled "Ensuring Local Input, Legal Consistency and Multi-Use Resource Management in St. George BLM Planning," Friday morning at the Dixie Convention Center in St. George.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday morning, Bishop will unveil a long-awaited "discussion draft" of his comprehensive public lands bills affecting 18 million acres in seven eastern Utah counties. This process was modeled after the one then-Sen. Bob Bennett successfully used to craft the Washington County legislation, part of a 2009 omnibus lands bill.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz and Gov. Gary Herbert will meet with reporters at the Capitol to explain the legislation, known as the Public Lands Initiative, that Bishop intends to introduce in Congress in the coming weeks.

The bill is the result of a locally driven process aimed at resolving longstanding conflicts over which public lands should be managed for conservation and which for mineral development.

Although the draft has yet to be publicly released, it's already being panned by some environmental groups as "an unprecedented giveaway" to oil and gas industry, stuffed with "poison pills." The draft bill will identify numerous areas for protection as wilderness and national conservation areas, but the Center for Western Priorities contends those designations would be in "name only," while opening roadless lands to ATV use.

Testifying at Friday's field oversight hearing in St. George will be Kathleen Clarke, herself a former BLM chief, currently serving as director of the Utah Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office; Washington County Commission Chairman Alan Gardner; St. George Mayor Jon Pike; former Utah Attorney General Paul Van Dam, now a conservation activist who once headed Citizens for Dixie's Future; and Jenna Whitlock, BLM's Utah acting state director.

According to a hearing memo, the overdue Red Cliffs management plan, which was to be completed by the end of March 2012, was supposed to allow for continued livestock grazing at pre-existing levels; consider input from county, local, tribal and state governments; identify an alternative route for a northern transportation corridor; and implement numerous other measures that balance traditional use and recreation with conservation.

Instead, the draft plan's preferred alternative would severely limit uses residents have enjoyed for years, according to local leaders. It would also allow for the introduction of California condors to the full protections of the Endangered Species Act.

"Many in the local community ... feel that the plans do not strike this balance and that BLM has ignored elements of the law, thereby jeopardizing the time, effort and resources invested into crafting a unique legislative compromise at the local level," states the memo released Tuesday. "Without the assurance that federal agencies will correctly interpret site-specific laws, like Washington County's, in the development of federal planning documents, local communities in other areas will have little incentive to build consensus and work with Congress to develop bills that prescribe specific management of federal land."

Local leaders say they were promised a major right of way across the southern end of the 45,000-acre Red Cliffs NCA in exchange for numerous conservation concessions.

The Wilderness Society, which participated in these negotiations in the late 2000s, called this characterization of the negotiations "laughable" and a revision of legislative history.

"The BLM has been at this for six years with multiple opportunities for written comment and public meetings. They have gone above and beyond. The county is a cooperating agency, they have had more opportunity than we've had to submit alternatives," said Phil Hanceford of the society's BLM Action Center. "The problem is the BLM hasn't taken in every suggestion by the county and inserted it into the preferred alternative. Just because you don't like every provision doesn't mean you should hold political theater in St. George."

Following the oversight hearing in the same venue, Rep. Chris Stewart is hosting a "listening session" aimed at "holding federal land agencies accountable." Stewart will explore issues familiar to anyone who follows Utah's public lands controversies: BLM law enforcement, actions against ranchers, "potential collusion" between federal officials and environmentalists, the introduction of Mexican gray wolf; and possible monument designations.

Conservationists are concerned that Stewart will be listening only to opponents of conservation.

"The public business must only be done in plain, open, public view," Andrus wrote, "not orchestrated by paid campaign minions seeking to manipulate the pubic by fear."

"Speaking at the listening session will be by invitation only," states a media announcement from Stewart's office. Those not invited may submit written comments, and a report of the session will be included in the Congressional Record.

Brian Maffly covers public lands for The Salt Lake Tribune. Maffly can be reached at or 801-257-8713. Twitter: @brianmaffly