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While some rural communities are generally pleased with draft language in U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop's Utah Public Lands Initiative Act (PLI), many Native Americans and urban Utahns are seething that they were excluded from the process intended to resolve land-use controversies on 18 million acres of public land in eastern Utah.
That displeasure was on full-throated display Wednesday night at the University of Utah where at least 500 conservation-minded people packed a "citizens' hearing" to denounce various aspects of the 65-page draft Bishop and fellow Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz released in January after more than two years of meetings with various "stakeholders."
Critics say the draft bill is "an all-out assault" on the state's natural heritage and landscapes that sustain its economic vitality and quality of life by stripping protections from millions of acres and allowing incompatible uses in designated wilderness.
"It's a disaster," said former San Juan County Commissioner Mark Maryboy in Navajo, then in English. A Navajo community leader, Maryboy is a proponent of the Bears Ears National Monument aimed at conserving the lands around Cedar Mesa which is rich in Native American antiquities.
"We tried to work with Chaffetz and Bishop to see if we could come up with a national conservation area. They refused to work with us and it was unfortunate to see this draft," Maryboy said. "It is more for energy development. We must not allow that legislation to pass. We are very disappointed that the county commissioners and the Utah leadership don't know how to work with Native Americans. Total disrespect."
Beside Maryboy on the stage were four empty seats bearing the names of Chaffetz, Bishop and Sens. Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch. The Republicans were invited to the event but either declined or did not respond.
Chaffetz said the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which co-hosted the event with the U. Environmental Club and other groups, ignores the interests of rural Utahns and has distorted the initiative.
"I have been listening to this group for the past three years, and if they have anything new to offer, my door is still open," said Bishop, who could not attend because of a scheduling conflict.
"Not all stakeholders are able to receive 100 percent of what they want as part of PLI," he said through a spokeswoman. "We have received constructive and at times critical comments from every single participant involved in PLI, including all seven counties. But unlike SUWA, the counties and legitimate interest groups are still working with the delegation instead of buying misleading television ads and holding one-sided faux hearings."
The Utah Wilderness Coalition organized Wednesday's event to give Wasatch Front residents a platform for venting frustrations with the PLI process. Bishop plans no hearings outside Washington, D.C., after he introduces a final version of the bill.
SUWA's David Garbett wondered why the delegation is avoiding feedback from Utah's urban residents, who have a powerful stake in the fate of these lands.
"All that shows is that they believe the whole Wasatch Front is stacked against them so they are not going to bother hearing what they have to say," he said. "They said they held 1,200 meetings, but they are talking to about 5 percent of the state's population, those who live in the seven counties. It's unfortunate that they are acting like petulant children rather than engaging in a public dialogue. I don't think it bodes well for the Public Lands Initiative."
Utah's political leaders have applauded the PLI for paving a path through the decades-long impasse over how Utah's scenic public lands should be used. Gov. Gary Herbert's energy policy adviser, Cody Stewart, attended the event as much a rally as it was a hearing but did not speak.
A diverse range of organizations and individuals, including the National Parks Conservation Association, outdoor industry businesses, and the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition denounced the draft Wednesday. Grand and Summit county residents who spoke said their counties are on record opposing the draft, which fails to incorporate conservation aspects of their proposals.
"They promised to be inclusive and hoped to reach a grand bargain," said moderator Tim Wagner, uttering the closest thing to a compliment in more than three hours of remarks. "This was a worthy endeavor and the conservation community participated in good faith. As the initiative played out inclusivity disappeared."
Wagner, director of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, patted a stack of 2,000 citizen comments to be sent to Bishop.
Featured speakers included retired state Bureau of Land Management director Juan Palma; former Congresswoman Karen Shepherd, D-Salt Lake City; Black Diamond CEO Peter Metcalf; and Lauren Wood, a river guide and emerging Utah voice for conservation.
Author Terry Tempest Williams issued statement a through a friend, denouncing the initiative as a "fraud" for its failure to allow Utah citizens a meaningful opportunity to shape the proposal.
"It has little to do with protecting Utah' beloved wild lands, and a lot to do with protecting the corporate interests of oil and gas companies that are fueling the climate crisis," Williams said.
Latinos care deeply about public lands, yet this minority group was ignored, according to Palma.
"Why is it Latino voices are important? I give three reasons," asked Palma, now chief conservation officer for Hispanics Enjoying Camping and Hunting in the Outdoors. "We have deep roots in the West. We have some knowledge about these lands, and third, we might actually know what we are talking about."
Spanish explorers blazed many of the early trails across the Southwest.
"Many of our forebears are buried along these trails. We didn't just come out yesterday like some people want you to believe. Some of us have been here a long time and some are perfectly legal citizens," Palma said.
Metcalf gave a scathing assessment of the PLI's potential to harm the very assets that he says makes Utah's economy among the nation's most robust.
"What is driving Utah's economy is not the dying extractive industries, but outdoor tourism and film," Metcalf said. "Protecting wild landscapes and are absolutely integral to our state's vibrant economic future."
Many speakers described the PLI as a prelude to Utah's ultimate goal of "seizing" control of 31 million acres of public lands.
NPCA's Erika Pollard said her group was "shocked" by many items in the draft, which marks a dramatic departure from current law and land management norms. Bishop's draft would hamstring the National Park Service and other federal agencies' ability to protect wilderness and other natural values, as well as their cultural resources.
She highlighted a controversial provision that would resolve thousands of disputed road claims in favor of the counties, totaling some 10,000 miles of routes, many inside parks.
"Within park boundaries, travel management by the National Park Service is critical to achieve the flow and volume of visitors into the parks enabling them to meet goals for recreational access and long-term resource protection," Pollard said. "The discussion draft of the PLI does not represent a balanced approach to resolving Utah's public land issues and in fact includes many threats to the national parks and the broader landscape in eastern Utah that we all hold dear."