If only public lands stakeholders had a crystal ball…
As President Barack Obama prepares to leave office and President-elect Donald Trump puts together his own administration, the future of public lands issues remains unclear to elected officials, environmentalists and industry supporters alike.
“The (Nov. 8) election certainly threw a great deal of uncertainty into the future of public lands,” Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) Executive Director Scott Groene said.
The outgoing 114th Congress is running out of time to act on a sweeping eastern Utah public lands bill from the state’s congressional delegation. Meanwhile, the Obama administration is keeping mum on the possibility of whether or not it will declare a 1.9-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument on public lands in San Juan County.
Both issues are connected to each other: Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, introduced their Public Lands Initiative (PLI) partly because they hope to avert the designation of another national monument in Utah.
Bishop has said that the initiative aims to resolve long-standing conflicts between development of public lands on the one hand, and recreation and conservation on the other. He based the bill on the premise that local government should have a greater say on how those lands are managed, arguing that the status quo isn’t working.
After more than three years of work on the initiative, the House Natural Resources Committee chair finally unveiled the bill last summer, just as U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell toured sites that an inter-tribal coalition wants to include in a Bears Ears monument.
But the PLI hasn’t gained much traction in the current Congress, and critics like Moab resident and Sierra Club representative Wayne Hoskisson have questioned whether Bishop is committed to passing the bill.
Groene said he views the PLI as a “total failure,” and he believes the bill’s lame-duck status in the 114th congressional session gives Obama an open invitation to declare a Bears Ears National Monument.
“So we can thank Congressman Bishop for what is likely a monument designation,” Groene said.
At this point, Bishop Communications Director Lee Lonsberry said he can’t say whether Jewell has come up with a recommendation for or against the Bears Ears proposal.
“I can’t speak to any of that,” Lonsberry said. “I don’t know, essentially.”
With no clear indication of where the current administration is going, Utah’s delegation is moving forward with the PLI, based on the assumption that the U.S. House and Senate can still approve the bill during the waning days of this congressional session.
“Right now, we’re just operating as though we can get it through this Congress,” Lonsberry said.
In the event that it doesn’t clear that hurdle, Lonsberry said the delegation will likely reintroduce the bill after the 115th Congress convenes in January 2017.
Hoskisson predicted that Obama could shake up those plans if the president declares the Bears Ears monument at some point during his final weeks in office. Bishop, in turn, could choose to abandon the PLI for a period of time, in the event that he decides to work against a Bears Ears designation, or earlier national monument proclamations.
“Everything’s up in the air, based on what Rep. Bishop determines is his priority,” Hoskisson said.
Lonsberry said that Bishop met with members of the president-elect’s transition team to discuss some of those priorities, such as potential land-use policies that the next administration might pursue.
Bishop called the talks “positive and encouraging,” and he raised the possibility that he will work with Trump’s administration to undo past national monument designations, such as former President Bill Clinton’s creation of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996.
Republican and Democratic presidents alike since Teddy Roosevelt have used their powers under the 1906 Antiquities Act to set aside monuments that later became national parks, including four of Utah’s “Mighty Five.”
Bishop signaled that he may try to reverse those decisions in cases where the monuments are, by his standards, “excessive” in size, and don’t necessarily protect landmarks or historic sites from imminent danger.
“Any monument designation that lacks local support, is excessive, or violates the terms of the Antiquities Act will be scrutinized and is easier to abolish,” he said in a statement.
While such a move is unprecedented, Lonsberry said that nothing in the 1906 law would prevent a future president from reversing a predecessor’s proclamations.
“It has not been done in the past, but it’s not prohibited,” Lonsberry said.
However, if the congressman tries to do away with Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, he’ll likely face stiff opposition from SUWA and other environmental groups.
“It would be unprecedented and incredibly stupid, just from a policy standpoint,” Groene said.
Hoskisson questioned whether the new administration would want to take on a contentious fight over national monuments as one of its first priorities in office.
“I think this would be a fairly large battle within Congress and the legal system, and that may not be something that Trump wants to start out with,” he said.
If the president-elect chooses to take that route, though, Groene is confident that federal courts are unlikely to uphold any move to reverse a monument declaration, and would instead side with his group’s position on the issue.
“I think most legal experts agree that a subsequent president lacks the legal authority to undo a monument, and there is no precedent for doing so,” Groene said.
Ride with Respect Executive Director Clif Koontz said that some off-highway vehicle advocates are hoping that the election results will provoke Obama into proclaiming a monument that’s long on acreage and short on local support because the incoming president or Congress could reverse it.
In contrast, he said, Ride with Respect is concerned that this kind of back-and-forth between administrations would only polarize public-lands issues further.
“We hope that all stakeholders will get serious about a comprehensive bill like the (PLI). Legislation of this magnitude is inherently imperfect, and can’t offer a panacea,” Koontz said. “Nevertheless, with minor refinements, the PLI would be a step forward for recreation, conservation and economic development.”
Trump’s views on public lands aren’t well-documented
The incoming administration hasn’t mapped out detailed policy positions on public lands issues, and Trump spent little time on the campaign trail talking about them.
For now, at least, Hoskisson said he has little reason to hope that Trump will pursue a pro-conservation agenda.
Hoskisson said he expects to have a clearer idea of where Trump stands after the president-elect announces his nominees for cabinet heads to lead federal land management agencies like the U.S. Interior Department.
“Once we see who he appoints to those positions, it will give us a little bit better sense of what his intentions are,” he said.
Grand County Council member Mary McGann said that she and others who support greater protections for public lands already have reason to worry.
“I’m concerned about our public lands in general with the new administration,” McGann said.
Among other things, McGann said she’s now uncertain about the future of the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM’s) proposed Master Leasing Plan for the greater Moab area.
The agency says the plan aims to balance future energy development with outdoor recreation and conservation on hundreds of thousands of acres in southern Grand and northern San Juan counties. However, critics like San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams fear it would shut down future potash development and other industrial projects across much of the planning area.
McGann said she’s also worried that Trump will be receptive to Utah’s elected officials’ calls for state control over federal lands within its borders.
If a January 2016 interview with Field and Stream magazine offers any indication of Trump’s views on the issue, though, McGann might not have reason to worry.
“I don’t like the idea because I want to keep the lands great, and you don’t know what the state is going to do,” Trump said, according to the magazine. “I mean, are they going to sell if they get into a little bit of trouble? And I don’t think it’s something that should be sold. We have to be great stewards of this land.”
However, in light of the president-elect’s history of shifting his views and positions on other issues, McGann said she is not about to let her guard down.
“We all feel like we need to be vigilant if we’re going to protect our land and our main economic base in this town, which is tourism (on public lands),” she said.
Bishop signals he may seek reversals of national monument designations
The election certainly threw a great deal of uncertainty into the future of public lands.