Rep. Jason Chaffetz is hoping to strike a deal between energy developers, conservationists and recreationists, while averting a presidential proclamation of a national monument in southeastern Utah.
“I just don’t believe somebody has to win and somebody else has to lose,” the Utah Republican said. “I think we can create a win-win, and that’s what we are trying to do.”
The congressman is proposing revisions to the eastern Utah Public Lands Initiative that would include a 50,000-acre expansion of Arches National Park, as well as the designation of wilderness and a National Conservation Area in Labyrinth Canyon along the Green River. He is also proposing to withdraw approximately 24,000 acres of proposed wilderness in the Book Cliffs – before Utah’s congressional delegation introduces a bill in Congress some time this fall.
Chaffetz is also insisting on a permanent exemption of the Antiquities Act, which he fears President Barack Obama will use to declare either a Greater Canyonlands, or a Bears Ears/ Cedar Mesa National Monument in San Juan County.
“By taking away the use of the Antiquities Act, it’s making this deal possible,” Chaffetz said. “If the White House won’t agree to that, this deal doesn’t happen. It’s the only way you can get the buy-in at the local level.”
Chaffetz also proposed the designation of a 2,000-acre “Jurassic National Monument” at the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry in neighboring Emery County. He said the designation would bring more attention to the area’s high concentration of Jurassic Era dinosaur fossils, and that it would benefit local economies. But, he emphasized, “It’s important to me that the locals want this. And if they do, I’ll champion it in Washington D.C.”
Grand County Council chair Elizabeth Tubbs said she believes that the Public Lands Initiative would have a difficult time getting passed with the exclusion of the Antiquities Act, and that she would have to look at the Arches proposal more closely.
“The issue I see there is that depending on which sections of real estate are affected, it puts that property into National Park Service control,” Tubbs said. “That may not sit well with some folks in Grand County.”
Chaffetz is proposing to expand the park’s eastern boundary to include the viewshed behind Delicate Arch. The area gained notoriety in 2008, when environmental activist Tim DeChristopher successfully bid on parcels leased at an oil and gas auction with no intention of buying them. He subsequently spent two years in prison for the act.
Shortly after, the U.S. Department of the Interior canceled the leases, saying that they had been rushed into auction with insufficient environmental review, and in 2010, the Obama administration ordered the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to develop Master Leasing Plans.
The recently released draft Master Leasing Plan from the agency places either a “no-surface occupancy” restriction on much of the area, or designates it as closed to development.
Chaffetz hasn’t released any specifics about his proposed wilderness and National Conservation Act designations for the Labyrinth Canyon area. But his press secretary MJ Henshaw told the Moab Sun News that the congressman’s office will be working with stakeholders, including off-road vehicle enthusiasts and conservation groups such as the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA).
“Nothing is set in stone,” she said. “This is still very much a proposal.”
Ride with Respect Executive Director Clif Koontz from said that he hasn’t yet seen a proposal and couldn’t comment until he had seen the extent of the proposed designations.
Scott Groene, executive director for SUWA, said he hasn’t seen any proposal either, but that his organization is still interested in working toward an agreement.
“First we have to see the cards they are holding,” he said. “If this is just another one-sided, county-driven proposal, then we’re doomed to repeat a 20-year history with yet another congressional fight and no resolution of the wilderness issue in Utah.”
Chaffetz is also proposing to remove the proposed Mexico Point and Hideout Canyon wilderness areas in the Book Cliffs from the initiative. The two units were determined to have wilderness characteristics through a BLM survey, and are situated near Hay and East canyons – both proposed routes for an “enhanced transportation corridor” through the Book Cliffs.
Grand County Council member Mary McGann said the council included the proposed wilderness units to complete the natural boundaries of the rest of the proposed Book Cliffs wilderness area, and that they are important to the region’s wildlife and ecological diversity.
“We worked really hard on this,” she said. “This was one of the areas that had greater consensus among the council than the others.”
McGann expressed concern that the units were dropped to help facilitate fossil fuel development in the area, particularly tar sands, and said that the state should quit promoting a “dead-end industry.”
Henshaw said the units were discarded because they lacked the wilderness character of either the proposed Arches expansion or the Labyrinth Canyon area.
Kelsey Berg, who serves as Chaffetz’s energy and natural resource advisor, said that the state had an interest in the area.
“This is all part of the negotiation,” she said.
The eastern Utah Public Lands Initiative has been championed by Chaffetz and chief sponsor Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, as a bottom-up process where stakeholders and local governments from seven southeastern Utah counties form recommendations for federal public-land use designations.
A newly elected Grand County Council sent its recommendations to Bishop in March of this year, after a nearly two-year process that divided stakeholders during a series of contentious public meetings.
Berg said that that Utah’s congressional delegation didn’t want to throw away a year-and-a-half’s worth of work done by the previous council.
“We understand the different dynamics between the two (councils) and we’re just trying to find balance,” Berg said. “We’re aware of the interests in Grand County and the different sides of the spectrum and hopefully there will be something in there for everyone.”
McGann said that the previous council was voted out largely because of its stance on the initiative, and said she understood that once the new council put forward its recommendation that it “wouldn’t be messed with.”
Berg said that county recommendations are very important, but added that the congressional delegation is now in a last-minute hustle to include everyone’s input.
“It’s just like poker – nobody is trying to tip their hands too soon,” Berg said. “We’re finally getting to the point where we have to know where your cards are. So lay them on the table.”
Protections would also be added in Labyrinth Canyon; Book Cliffs would lose county-proposed wilderness areas
It’s just like poker; nobody is trying to tip their hands too soon. We’re finally getting to the point where we have to know where your cards are. So lay them on the table.