This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated.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.
The newly unveiled Public Lands Initiative was promised to be a departure from the fractious way public lands issues in Utah have always been handled. Its creator, Rep. Rob Bishop, claimed he wanted to resolve arguments over our shared wild lands once and for all. But in this regard, the PLI is an abject failure, another descendant of dozens of prior bills from prior decades that miss the fundamental point: The land is what matters.
Generations of Utah politicians have stumbled the same way Bishop has. The unparalleled beauty of our canyons and mesas, which most Americans see as sacred, our leaders dismiss as profane. What is priceless, they regard as mere commodity. The very federal land that enhances our state is to them an obstacle to be overcome. And because they keep getting it wrong, they keep failing.
When Utah politicians shirk their duty to protect our treasured national heritage, the president steps in. President Taft protected what is now Zion National Park, and President Hoover what is now Arches. President Clinton protected Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Imagine: generations of presidents of both parties forced into clean-up duty for our failed politicians.
The details of this latest chapter are familiar as ever. While Bishop throws around hefty wilderness acreage figures to greenwash his bill, these impress only in the abstract. Here's the truth: The bill would actually protect less Bureau of Land Management land as wilderness than the agency is already managing for wilderness on the ground about 100,000 acres less.
Moving backwards can never be heralded as progress. In the counties covered by the PLI, only 38 percent of land in America's Red Rock Wilderness Act the visionary bill to protect Utah's deserving wild landsgain protection. At a 2009 hearing on the Red Rock bill in Congress, every then-member of the Utah delegation, including Rep. Bishop, showed up and said they understood that wilderness matters and vowed they would get to work to do it themselves. The result is a bill that unravels existing protections.
That's not even close to good enough. It doesn't pass the laugh test.
So, like all of its ancestors, the PLI will likely result in another American president stepping in to do what's needed. This time it will be President Obama, and the Bears Ears National Monument.
And next time, next president? Maybe the San Rafael Swell. The Dirty Devil region after that. Desolation Canyon. So many places that deserve protection are still waiting. And our politicians continue to attack them rather than embrace them for being the precious inheritance they are.
There is a way out of this pattern. It would require Utah's representatives to see the land, really see it. Not like they have been, with the cartoon dollars signs in their eyes, but with the vision required to understand that wildness is a gift, that it is a legacy that has been left to us, and that it is up to us to carry on that legacy. It would require humility. It would require real, meaningful compromise, and conservation that takes us forward, not back into the past. It would require acknowledgement that these lands belong to all Americans, not to parochial county commissions and anti-federal crusaders.
Bishop used to be a history teacher, but he can't seem to see that he's repeating all the same mistakes of his forebears. The way to solve the wilderness question in Utah is to answer it honestly. The land is the thing, and the land is wild. It deserves protection. Until our representatives do that, they will continue to fail.
Scott Groene is executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Association.