By Thomas Burr
Tired of the gridlock over how to manage federal lands, Rep. Rob Bishop is attempting to bring together all sides of the issue to find common ground to either preserve or drill.
The Utah Republican is one of Congress' top cheerleaders for oil and gas development and a dogged critic of environmentalists -- but he says it's time to tone down the rhetoric and seize on a change at the Interior Department to get beyond the bitter feud in the public-lands debate.
Bishop has invited energy companies, green groups, local officials and other interested parties to submit their plans for what they want to get done and hopes to craft legislation to bring up later this year.
"There is some land that needs to be preserved and there's nothing wrong with that," Bishop said in an interview recently. "There's also land that needs to be developed, and there's no reason why the two can't coexist."
Bishop's office has held more than 100 individual meetings with environmentalists, oil and gas officials, county leaders and other interested parties to gauge input on a grand bargain of sorts aimed at ending the back-and-forth sparring about what to do with millions of acres awaiting a designation.
"I think we know that we're not going to agree on everything. In fact, we may not agree on many things," says Paul Spitler, director of wilderness campaigns with The Wilderness Society, who has met with Bishop about the proposed collaboration. "But there are some areas we will agree."
With the exception of a few small parcels, there hasn't been agreement on how to divvy up federal lands in Utah since then-Sen. Bob Bennett pushed through his Washington County Lands Bill in 2009 that sought the same type of compromise solution. Similar efforts have stalled or are still in the early stages in a few other Utah counties.
About 12.7 million acres in Utah are already set aside for national parks or monuments, conservation areas, wilderness or wilderness study areas as well as wild and scenic river corridors and Forest Service roadless areas. About 4.3 million acres are currently leased for oil and gas exploration by the Bureau of Land Management, meaning about 36 percent of the state is off-limits to development while 12 percent is for oil and gas drilling, according to Bishop's office.
Deadlock * Congress is equally deadlocked on wilderness. The past congressional session was the only one in modern times during which not a single acre in the United States was set aside. President Barack Obama, however, circumvented Congress last month to declare five new national monuments that had been awaiting designations.
Bishop, who heads a House subcommittee over federal lands, says he wants to widen the effort, looking regionally in Utah for potential compromises and not just county by county. His first target, he says, is eastern Utah, and he hopes to unveil legislation this summer to start the process.
Unlike Bennett's legislation -- which was tacked onto another bill in the waning hours of a congressional session -- Bishop wants to run his bill through the regular process, including a full committee hearing and floor debate.
"I want to bring some conclusion to the issues we're dealing with there," Bishop says, noting that, as a former teacher, he wants to bring more revenue in for Utah students from school trust lands and energy company royalties.
The timing is right, the congressman adds, since new Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has taken office and signaled an interest in working with local officials to tackle land concerns.
"If we can do it now, while we have a new Interior secretary coming in, [and] before everyone gets too locked down in their habits or biases, I think this is an opportunity to finally get something done," Bishop says. "There's a window of opportunity now, which if we were to wait too much longer would probably get closed."
Fresh start * Jewell, the former head of Recreational Equipment Inc., whose first full day in office was Monday, said during her Senate confirmation hearing that she is committed to public input and working with communities on issues "so that it's not a surprise" when an action is taken.
"I think people in our states [who] are on the ground by these spectacular places or important places know that better than anybody else around the country," she said.
In his letter to various groups seeking compromise, Bishop said the history of public lands in Utah is "long on episodes of contention and conflict and short on examples of compromise and consensus."
"Much of the debate has centered on a false choice between multiple use or land conservation," Bishop wrote in the letter obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune. "I reject this either-or proposition."
The prospect of a deal, or series of deals, has generated some optimism that perhaps for the first time the parties can sit down and settle some of the long-standing land disputes.
"We're weary of the struggle," says Kathleen Clarke, the former BLM director who now heads up Gov. Gary Herbert's Public Lands Policy Coordination Office. "We're tired of the endless battle, and nobody is winning. Everyone is anxious to see something break loose."
Herbert has endorsed the process and twice met with Bishop to go over the concept, Clarke said.
The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, too, is on board.
"We look for every opportunity to protect wilderness," says Richard Peterson-Cremer, SUWA's legislative director based in Washington. "We're open to see how this progresses."
Uintah County Commissioner Mike McKee, who also met with the congressman and his staff on the proposal, says it's time to put the controversy aside and work it out.
"Special interests have dug in, counties have dug in, and there has been an impasse here for a bunch of years," McKee says, noting that the Washington County Lands Bill paved the way for others to follow.
"There is probably more of a willingness of the parties to work together and for that to happen," McKee adds. "It has to benefit all parties."