Rob Bishop’s “Public Lands Initiative” is an Insidious Attack on Our Public Lands

Jan 19, 2016

By Center for Western Priorities

Here are Six of the Worst Poison Pills Stuffed into the Bill

After years of work, Congressman Rob Bishop released a draft of his long-awaited Public Lands Initiative (PLI) bill on Wednesday. Early reporting already shows Congressman Bishop trying to spin his bill as a balanced and collaborative success story, even before the public has an opportunity to review the legislation.

Don’t be fooled: The draft Public Lands Initiative bill is an extreme and deceptive attack on our nation’s public lands that does little for conservation. The legislation is another ideological vehicle for Congressman Bishop to express his disdain for national public lands, rather than a true attempt at addressing diverse stakeholder needs.

Rep. Bishop stated recently that “people will win and people will lose” in his bill. There’s no doubt that the winners Bishop picked are big oil and gas companies and Utah’s misguided public lands policy, while the losers include hikers, campers, sportsmen and women, Native American tribes, and the American people.

Here are six major shortcomings we’ve identified in the draft bill:

1) It Creates Wilderness in Name Only

Congressman Bishop will tout the millions of acres that his bill would protect as wilderness, national monuments, or national conservation areas. But within these designations Rep. Bishop has hidden unprecedented loopholes for special interests that would significantly diminish any protections. For example, the bill legislates that new wilderness areas—even those in national parks—cannot be designated as a “Class I airshed” to protect visibility and air quality. This means drilling and industrial development could happen right up to the newly “protected” areas.

Another major concern is that the bill takes science-based management out of land management decisions. The proposal, for example, mandates that grazing continue at current levels within protected areas in perpetuity, regardless of drought or condition of the range. And lands that are currently set aside as Wilderness Study Areas would be given up forever and “released” for industrial uses.

What Congressman Bishop’s bill calls “Wilderness” is not wilderness as it’s been understood since the passage of the Wilderness Act over 50 years ago.

2) It’s an Unprecedented Giveaway to the Oil and Gas Industry

Congressman Bishop designates all Bureau of Land Management land in six counties not currently protected or not protected by the legislation as “energy zones,” i.e. areas open to expedited oil, gas, and other mineral leasing and development.

The rapid timeline for leasing would preclude even the most minimal review of environmental impacts or potential destruction of irreplaceable cultural, historic or natural resources, turning much of Utah into an oil and gas free-for-all.

3) It Shows a Disregard for Utah’s Tribes

A coalition of 25 Native American tribes has asked President Obama to protect Utah’s Bears Ears region by designating the area as a new national monument. Their request includes 1.9 million acres of currently unprotected lands, encompassing more than 100,000 archaeological sites.

But Congressman Bishop’s legislation wouldn’t create a monument at all, and instead would create a much smaller “conservation area” with a four-person “management commission.” Half of that board would be made up of representatives from the Utah Department of Natural Resources and the San Juan County Commission. The county commission is currently led by Phil Lyman, who was recently sentenced to jail for leading an illegal ATV ride that damaged Native American archaeological sites.

By stacking the deck with representatives who have already shown no interest in protecting native sites or history, Bishop’s PLI reveals a stunning disregard for Utah’s tribes.

4) It Allows Motorized Vehicles Throughout Utah’s Roadless Areas

The bill would open thousands of miles of dirt trails to motorized vehicles in eastern Utah, paving the way for vehicles to crisscross national monuments, national parks, and other conservation areas. As written, any county covered by the legislation could claim an historical right-of-way under an old law from 1866 called “Revised Statute 2477” and those “right-of-ways” would be opened to motorized traffic.

5) It Kneecaps the Land and Water Conservation Fund

Congressman Bishop just waged a vicious and ultimately unsuccessful battle against America’s most successful parks program, the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Fresh off his defeat, Bishop is now trying to gut LWCF in his own state by banning land management agencies from using LWCF funds to protect land inside new wilderness and conservation areas.

In other words, if the owner of private land inside a wilderness area wants to protect his or her land forever, their only options are to give that land away or arrange for a land swap. Usually, the National Park Service or Forest Service must pay fair market value to a willing seller to obtain lands, but this bill makes fair compensation impossible inside Utah’s newly “protected” lands.

6) It Helps the State with its Bundy-Inspired Land Grab

Congressman Bishop proposes an outright giveaway of almost 40,000 acres of national public lands to the state of Utah. The bill also disposes of large swaths of Emery County, an apparent gift to unnamed private interests. There is also a land “exchange” provision with no valuation clause, which could mean that the American people will receive lands of low value while the state gets high-value acreage.

Congressman Bishop’s disdain for the diverse interests he claimed would have a voice in the PLI process will be on display this Friday, when he holds court over a “listening session” in St. George, Utah. The only voices Bishop will allow to speak at the session are supporters of the Bundy family’s militant land seizure agenda. The announcement, along with the draft PLI bill, makes it clear who Congressman Bishop actually listens to: “Speaking at the listening session will be by invitation only.”

Photo: Rob Bishop by Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0