Public lands initiative gets mixed reaction

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SALT LAKE CITY — Rural lawmakers, Native American tribes and environmentalists have given mixed reaction to the recent announced public lands initiative.

View in southern San Juan County, one of seven counties involved in the PLI Photo: David Boyle

San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams recognizes that the Public Lands Initiative, announced in mid-January. doesn’t solve all parties issues but he does think the compromises are fair. San Juan County sits in the state’s most southeastern corner and borders the Four Corners region with Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico.

“Ultimately because its federal land the congressional people have to make some tough decisions and they’ve probably done some things that are actually pretty fair,” Adams said.

At the same time, some organizations have been disillusioned by the proposed bill. The Bears Ear Coalition, an organization dedicated to protecting the Bears Ears area in San Juan County, was involved at one point in the initiative but pulled their input and endorsement in December.  The coalition. made up of members of the Navajo, Ute, Hopi, Zuni and other Native American tribes, hopes to protect the Bears Ears region as it is considered sacred by area Native American tribes. In a letter to Bishop and Chaffetz the coalition cited lack of meeting deadlines as part of  the reason why they withdrew their support and input in the process.

Most have predicted for some time that Eastern Utah was destined to some sort of federal land designation. Some of speculated that some of President Barack Obama’s final acts in office could include designating more national monuments in the Southwest, including Utah, by executive order to get around a difficult Congressional land  process. Already, he has designated three national monuments last June that spanned more than 1 million acres. National monument status protects against land use by restricting certain activities, including mining.

Obama designated the national monuments via the Antiquities Act (1906). The Act allows the president to designate public lands as national monuments.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, hopes to compromise Obama via a a new Public Lands Initiative announced Jan. 20 in Salt Lake City. The initiative looks to designate and protect public lands in seven Utah counties. The proposal includes Summit, Duchesne, Uintah, Carbon, Emery, Grand and San Juan counties.

The initiative would simultaneously ban the creation of a national monument within these same seven counties.

Bishop along with Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, Utah say the draft bill reveals the work of three years and 1,200 plus meetings among 120 interest groups. The proposal has been divided into two divisions: conservation and opportunity.

The proposal would conserve 4.3 million acres of federal land and 301 miles of rivers. The preservation proposal would create 41 wilderness areas, which is the most restrictive federal land designation. Additionally, 14 national conservation areas, and seven special management areas would be created. These designations have greater flexibility in terms of uses of the land.

The initiatie would expand Arches National Park, grant the Clevelend-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry national monument status, protect Ashley Creek recreational area in Uintah County, and designate wild and scenic rivers throughout eastern Utah.

The opportunities included in the act would release 80,000 acres that are currently designated as wilderness areas. Another result of the act would be the creation of an off-highway vehicle (OHV) road. The recreational road would stretch from Green River, Utah, to Grand Junction, Colorado.

Additionally the act would guarantee the protection of further economic development on public lands, including mining.

David Boyle
Blue Mountain range in southeastern Utah. Photo: David Boyle

The act comes as a result of collaboration between environmental organizations, elected officials, and other interests groups.

The Bears Ears Coalition also had concerns of their issues not being taken seriously by the members involved. As part of the protection to the land the coalition wants the traditional use of the land by Native Americans to continue. The coalition wants Native Americans sto be allowed to hunt, fish and gather wood in the Bears Ears area.

If the land is designated a national monument via the Antiquities Act, none of those activities will be allowed without amendment to the Antiquities Act.

Ultimately the coalition said it feels that Public Lands Initiative would not be satisfactory in protecting the Bears Ears.

San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams expressed his thoughts on the coalition’s withdraw.

“The Bears Ears coalition has been invited, and included in every discussion we’ve ever had. We recognize their needs and try to address them,” Adams said. “We had hoped they would’ve been supportive of our proposal. It’s been quite disappointing to see their reaction.”

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