Compromise, solutions sought in energy and public lands debate
by Amy Joi O'Donoghue, Deseret News
While environmental groups and Utah's political conservatives batter each over fossil fuel development and have entrenched battle lines, there are examples of where compromise and alternative approaches are building solutions to the strife.
SALT LAKE CITY — Amid all the contentious strife over energy development, access to Utah lands and the federal government, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, is trying to broker a solution that strikes at compromise.
Why not agree that some lands are worth preserving, grant them protections and in turn get "resource" rich lands that are marked for development?
"One of the things I am trying to accomplish is that we quit fighting over all these lands," he said. "There are lands in Utah that are deserving of conservation status. There are also lands that should be developed for their energy."
The Public Lands Initiative — which has its grounding in themes of collaboration, compromise and creativity — seeks to solidify land use designations by starting at the "ground up" and gathering input from thousands of Utah residents and groups.
While the Transfer of Public Lands effort is about "ownership," the initiative that also began in 2012 is more about management — both by counties and the state, Bishop said.
"We have examples of land outside of Moab where the county manages Bureau of Land Management land and they do it brilliantly. ... The state can manage wilderness areas far better than the federal government."
Bishop has held more than 100 individual meetings with environmentalists, oil and gas representatives, county officials and others to try to end the strife and uncertainty that goes with disputed land use designations.
Joined in his efforts by Reps. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and Chris Stewart, R-Utah, the "Grand Bargain" has involved road trips throughout Utah as they build a multi-county effort to identify priorities and ensure all interests are represented.
"Recreation, for example, is the stepchild that has been forgotten in the past. We're trying to make sure they have a voice this time," Bishop said.
As chairman of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and the Environment, Bishop is a curious champion for new wilderness designations because of his long-standing vitriol aimed at environmentalists and their cause.
But he said it is clear something has to change to bring an end to the bickering — and that there is a growing consensus that balanced, responsible land use management is possible.
Ultimately, Bishop said the goal is to get federal legislation passed that will protect some of the most high-value areas in the state prized by environmentalists and conservationists and open up resource-rich areas for industry and struggling rural counties.
"I think there is something for everybody in this."
In neighboring Colorado, an attempt to show how environmental values can co-exist with energy development taps the efforts of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, the BLM and the owners of the High Lonesome Ranch.
The ranch and the partnership joined together to craft an energy demonstration project that is intended to be a "pilot" for responsible energy development.
"The goal is to demonstrate that energy development of natural resources and conservation can be accomplished in a winning balance," said Ed Arnett, the partnership's director of energy development.
The proposed project area encompasses 300,000 acres and involves the BLM as well as multiple stakeholders such as the partnership, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Mule Deer Foundation.
"We are trying to implement principles of balanced energy development in a landscape that has tens of thousands of acres of deeded property with lease rights on BLM land," he said.
Arnett said the partnership has reached out industry, with multiple groups working in advance to craft a plan for energy extraction on a "landscape" scale that could be an option for BLM to consider before any project is approved.
"In general, one of the things we think is important is having the BLM work on these broad landscapes and develop some certainty for industry where drilling will be permitted, for locations or areas that will have restrictions and those areas where there won't be drilling," he said.
Arnett said applying that "pre-development" planning up front helps to avoid conflict, litigation and uncertainty.
"If you have a good comprehensive development plan in place you should be able to expedite permitting and have guarantees in there for industry, for wildlife and for sportsmen," he said.
"There are plenty of bad stories out there," he added. "It is easy to point out the problems. It is much harder to develop the solutions. That is what we are trying to do."