The Three Things We Know About Congressman Bishop and the Public Lands Initiative as We Wait for the Final Bill

Jul 13, 2016

By Center for Western Priorities

Utah Representative Rob Bishop is expected to introduce his long-awaited “Public Lands Initiative” (or PLI) bill tomorrow. The legislation, which was originally intended to chart a “grand bargain” between development and conservation interests in southern and eastern Utah, has appeared to be little more than a political cudgel for Rep. Bishop and other members of the Utah congressional delegation.

With legislation expected by tomorrow, here are three things to keep in mind once the bill finally becomes public:

1) Rep. Bishop has dragged his feet for more than three years; now there’s likely not enough time to pass the Public Lands Initiative

Representative Bishop first announced his plans for the Public Lands Initiative in April of 2013, saying at the time, “There is some land that needs to be preserved and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s also land that needs to be developed, and there’s no reason why the two can’t coexist‚Ķ There’s a window of opportunity now, which if we were to wait too much longer would probably get closed.”

Most would agree that “window of opportunity” has likely swung shut after three years of missed deadlines, foot dragging, and bellicose rhetoric by Rep. Bishop.

Ever since the summer of 2013, the congressman has been promising a draft of the PLI, yet time and again he missed deadlines, kicked the can down the road a little further, and continued dragging his feet. All the while, Rep. Bishop has become a leader of an effort by a fringe of conservative politicians who want to dispose of U.S. public lands, like national forests and wildlife refuges into state and private hands. Meanwhile, the congressman has insulted conservation stakeholders and burned bridges with Utah’s tribal leaders.

Now, 1186 days since first announcing his plan, we’re finally expecting a piece of legislation with a mere three dozen days remaining on the congressional calendar. By the time Bishop holds a September hearing to mark up his bill, there could be as few as 17 working days left to get a bill through the House and Senate. The odds of passing any piece of legislation as complicated and controversial as the Public Lands Initiative, particularly given Rep. Bishop’s lack of leadership to this point, are miniscule.

2) The ‘Public Lands Initiative’ discussion draft issued in January showed Rep. Bishop lacks seriousness to find a grand bargain on Utah’s lands

When Congressman Rob Bishop issued a draft version of the long-awaited Public Lands Initiative in January, it was panned as an “extreme and deceptive attack on our nation’s public lands that does little for conservation.”

Even though the legislation had been billed as a “grand bargain” that would resolve long-running land and energy conflicts in southern and eastern Utah, the outcome was little more than a one-sided vision for Utah’s lands: more development, more roads, and fewer protections for cultural and ecological resources.

Rep. Bishop continues to insist that the draft was a “good bill,” but very, very few stakeholders involved in the process would agree. Tribal leaders said the draft “adds insult to industry” confirming “the inequitable treatment of tribes over the past three years and our need to seek other means of protecting the living cultural landscape we call Bears Ears.”

Summit County, Utah said the draft PLI did not comport with the consensus proposal developed by the county. One Summit county commissioner wrote, “We took the charge to develop a proposal very seriously and devoted a year to a comprehensive stakeholder-driven process. The draft [bill] appears to disregard or not understand our proposal and its underlying values and agreements.”

One of the few stakeholders that did embrace the draft Public Lands Initiative was the oil and gas lobby. Oil company interests are very clearly prioritized by Rep. Bishop with massive land giveaways and loosening of rules and safeguards that help carefully plan development projects and protect sensitive areas from the impacts of drilling.

Now Rep. Bishop is using his original dead-in-the-water draft as a weapon, telling conservation groups that if they don’t support his new draft, he’ll go back to pushing the original bill that never had a chance to begin with.

3) Without significant revisions to the Public Lands Initiative, it will not be viewed as a serious bill with a chance of becoming law

The media reports announcing the draft Public Lands Initiative as “dead on arrival” sent Rep. Bishop back to the drawing board. Unless there are significant improvements made to the original draft, Rep. Bishop’s bill will likely end up in the congressional trash heap instead of on top of the president’s desk.

The final version of the bill must at the very least meet a handful of key thresholds:

  • It must provide protections for cultural, ecological, and recreational resources and not just designate “wilderness in name only.”
  • It must acknowledge the importance of national public lands in Utah and not merely pave the way for an unprecedented giveaway and sell-off of American public lands.
  • It must incorporate the priorities, views, and voices of the Native American community, including the five tribes leading the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition
  • It must not water down reasonable safeguards placed on industrial developers, while opening the doorstep of Utah’s “Mighty Five” to drilling.

Congressman Bishop is releasing his latest version of the PLI days before Interior Secretary Sally Jewell visits Utah to tour the Bears Ears area and listen to supporters of the national monument proposal. Bishop says if President Obama invokes the Antiquities Act to protect Bears Ears, it would kill the Public Lands Initiative. Considering his years of delays and missed deadlines, if the PLI dies this session, Rep. Bishop has no one to blame but himself.

Learn More

For 80 years, politicians have been all talk but no action when it comes to Bears Ears