[Courtesy photo]

The Republican Utah congressman who has championed eastern Utah’s Public Lands Initiative has launched a new effort to cede ownership of federal public lands to the state.

Rep. Rob Bishop, along with Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, formed the Federal Lands Action Group to “develop a legislative framework for transferring public lands to local ownership and control,” according to an April 28 press release.

“This group will explore legal and historical background in order to determine the best congressional action needed to return these lands back to the rightful owners,” Bishop said in the press release.

The congressman’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

The Federal Lands Action Group is the latest in a series of attempts made by some Republicans in Congress who are opposed to what they say is overly restrictive federal control of public lands within their states.

“The federal government has been a lousy landlord for western states and we simply think the states can do it better,” Stewart said in the press release.

In 2012, the Utah legislature passed, and Gov. Gary Herbert signed into law, House Bill 148, which demanded the federal government turn public lands over to the state. Similar legislation has passed in the neighboring states of Nevada and Arizona, but failed in Colorado.

Proponents say the transfer would ease restrictions on oil, gas and mineral development, and would allow more money to flow into state and local coffers. They say state ownership of public lands would better serve local residents, and that ultimately the state is a more efficient and accountable manager.

Local resident and Public Lands Initiative stakeholder Curtis Wells told the Moab Sun News that the land transfer movement has merit.

“Studies have shown that the state does a better job of managing the land financially,” Wells said. “The state is more efficient.”

Opponents say a transfer would result in public lands being sold off to the highest bidder, while putting at risk some of the region’s iconic, scenic landscapes. They say public access would actually be cut off as much of the land became privatized, and that states don’t have the financial capabilities to manage the lands.

“The state’s land grab, if successful, would be an environmental and financial disaster for those of us living here, as shown by the state’s own study,” Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance staff attorney Neal Clark said. “Among other problems, all Americans would inevitably lose access to places we now own and enjoy.”

Proponents say the transfer would ease restrictions on oil, gas and mineral development, and would allow more money to flow into state and local coffers.

Bishop himself has said he is committed to helping Congress strike a balance for “wise management” of public lands and natural resources.

As the new Republican chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Bishop said that efforts to promote private property rights and state sovereignty are among his chief priorities.

“I will also fight to protect the livelihoods of public land users while ensuring that we are responsible stewards of our natural resources,” he said in a statement after his appointment as committee chairman.

Bishop first proposed the Public Lands Initiative, or so-called “grand bargain,” in 2012.

At the time he announced the initiative, Bishop noted that the management of public lands in Utah has been the subject of much contention and conflict, with little room in the past for consensus or compromise among stakeholders.

“Much of the debate has centered on the idea that multiple-use and land conservation is an either/ or proposition,” he said in an op-ed column in support of the process. “I flatly reject this notion. Conservation and multiple-use can coexist.”

For the initiative, Bishop invited various stakeholders, including energy developers, wilderness advocates, recreational users and members of the general public to provide input for county governments in order to form a recommendation for public land use designations.

The formation of the new action group was announced shortly after the Grand County Council submitted its recommendation to Bishop in early April.

Grand County Council chair Elizabeth Tubbs said she wasn’t sure how the action group would affect the lands initiative process and that she was taking a “wait and see attitude.”

“I sincerely hope that the arduous effort that went in to this process by the council, present and previous, as well as by countless members of the community, won’t prove to be a futile effort,” she said.

Grand County Council member Jaylyn Hawks expressed her concern that Bishop wasn’t really committed to the process.

“We have a huge expenditure of manpower, time and commitment into a process that we entered into in good faith,” Hawks said. “We thought that Rep. Bishop truly wanted to incorporate the goals of the local citizens in coming up with workable plan. Now it feels like he wanted to keep the communities doing busy work while he worked on a Plan B.”

Wells said that though he has participated in the PLI process, he can’t throw his support behind it completely.

“We’ll see how the proposal is chewed up and spit out,” he said.

Grand County Council member Lynn Jackson said that he doesn’t see any direct conflicts between Bishop’s action group and his Public Lands Initiative and feels that it will have little outcome.

“Congressmen often have different tracks going at the same time, addressing various key issues they are concerned with, sort of like hedging their bets if you will,” Jackson said. “Bishop and Stewart’s initiative is not unusual, in my opinion, in the political world.”

The Public Lands Initiative process in Grand County, which began in early 2014, divided the community and was marked by heated discussions and emotional outpourings on all sides of the issue.

The initiative was seen by many as an option for avoiding a presidential proclamation designating a Greater Canyonlands National Monument. Many view the monument as inevitable if a compromise for public land management isn’t reached.

“If Utah politicians continue their efforts to seize federal lands, it will make it far more likely that President Obama will find it necessary to protect lands as a national monument,” Clark said. “It’s the silver lining to the idiotic and doomed land grab effort.”

Wells said he didn’t know if the land transfer movement would be enough of a threat for President Obama to declare a national monument. He said that a land transfer would involve a substantial time-line, and he hoped that the president would give communities time to form their own plan.

“There are a lot more steps to take,” he said.

Ashley Korenblat of Public Land Solutions, who has worked with the Grand County Council and other stakeholders for the past year to develop a comprehensive land use plan for the county, said that “part of being an American is sharing public lands with all Americans.”

“Giving the state control of federal land unravels Utah’s relationship with the United States,” Korenblat said. “It will create financial havoc for the counties by eliminating both their mineral and (federal Payments in Lieu of Taxes) revenue, and result in massive uncertainty for businesses including oil and gas, grazing, and recreation.”

Korenblat said that Utah will have to increase fees for public land users in every category, and sell off much of the land to make management financially soluble.

“The PLI process is our opportunity to control the federal lands in our state,” Korenblat said. “I greatly appreciate Congressman Bishop’s commitment to creating a workable bill, but I am disappointed that he feels the need to give time and energy to the land transfer proponents.”

Wells said he thinks that good things can come from both processes, and added that “no one should think their values are the only ones that matter.”

“I’m an advocate for people coming to the table and listening,” he said.

Move is a departure from congressman’s previous Public Lands Initiative efforts