Environmental Lobby on the Wrong Side of Conservation

by Kathleen Sgamma, Vice President of Government and Public Affairs on January 27, 2016 - 6:38am

Arches National ParkIf you were a group with “wilderness” in your name, you would think you’d at least seriously consider a legislative discussion draft that proposes to conserve 4.3 million acres in Utah, including nearly 2.3 million acres of wilderness, 1.8 million acres of National Conservation Areas, an expansion of Arches National Park, and a new National Monument. But rather than celebrating these potential new conservation areas, groups like the Wilderness Society and Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance issued knee-jerk responses to Congressmen Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz’s proposed Utah Public Lands Initiative (PLI) bill, criticizing it for not going far enough.

Why? Because these groups didn’t get 100% of what they wanted. After Congressmen Bishop and Chaffetz held over 1,200 meetings and dozens of field visits with local, state and national stakeholders, they released a proposal that balanced conservation needs with those of local communities where livelihoods and economic viability are intrinsically intertwined with public lands. After all, in a state with nearly 60% federal public lands, rural communities live and work surrounded by public lands and access to those lands is imperative.

Public lands don’t involve just scenic areas like Arches and Canyonlands national parks. With over 640 million acres of public lands in the United States, many areas are indeed deserving of protection as National Parks or wilderness, but vast amounts of these public lands are likewise appropriate for economic activities that feed, clothe, and power the nation. Ranching, mining, energy development, recreation and other economic activities take place in lands appropriately designated for these “multiple uses.”

The proposed Utah PLI bill recognizes that if productive multiple uses are disallowed in vast areas, there are other concessions that must be made to ensure that these communities are not choked off entirely from jobs and economic opportunity. That’s why there are other provisions in the bill that will likewise set aside certain appropriate areas for energy development, grazing, and motorized recreation. The bill also recognizes the need for roads so that communities are not shut off from each other or from access into adjacent public lands by vast distances. Environmental groups have long fought the basic right of local communities to have access to lands in their own back yard.  

Unlike certain “wilderness” groups, Western Energy Alliance initially came out in support of the bill, even though we had not had time to fully review it and like the 120 other diverse stakeholders, did not get an advance copy. We understand there will be provisions in the bill that we will not like, but that’s because with so many diverse interests, no one stakeholder can get 100 percent of what it wants.

We applaud the concept of energy planning areas, and understand that in return other areas will be designated for conservation only, even some with prospective oil and natural gas resources. With the vast acreage set aside for wilderness and conservation, we’re disappointed the bill does not include a specific provision to require congressional consent if a president tries to set aside land in Utah under the Antiquities Act, as is currently in place for Wyoming. But that makes us want to roll up our sleeves and keep working, not take our toys out of the sandbox and stomp away.

Because what’s the alternative? Environmental groups will point to the Red Rocks Wilderness Bill, which has failed to pass Congress since 1989 because it’s too top-down and one-sided. The Red Rocks bill concept is so divorced from the needs of the people of Utah that it has to be introduced by Members of Congress from New York, New Jersey and Illinois who don’t understand public lands issues and could care less about local communities.

The Utah Public Lands Initiative offers a better way. Counties, towns and the state have provided extensive input to the process, along with conservation groups and industries representing interests inside and outside the state. By wrapping many contentious public lands issues, not just conservation, into a broad bill that’s still open for more public input, Congressmen Bishop and Chaffetz hope to overcome the failure that is the Red Rocks bill and hammer out a compromise where everyone gets something of value. So far, the environmental lobby has shown its true all-or-nothing colors.