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IN THE NEWS: Utah Republicans Bishop, Hatch draw rare praise from enviros for land-swap bill

July 11, 2014
by Scott Streater, E&E reporter view online here

Utah Rep. Rob Bishop (R) has long butted heads with conservation leaders and the Obama administration over land-use policies that he says hamper domestic energy production and destroy jobs.

But Bishop and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) drew praise from conservation groups yesterday, the day after the Senate approved legislation sponsored by Bishop and Hatch that would authorize the state of Utah to relinquish certain school trust or subsurface mineral lands in order to benefit the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation.

The House approved the bill in May; President Obama is expected to sign the bill into law.

The "Hill Creek Cultural Preservation and Energy Development Act," H.R. 356, calls for the exchange of roughly 20,000 acres of Utah's mineral rights from ecologically and culturally sensitive lands in the Desolation Canyon region of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation for federal mineral rights in another, less environmentally sensitive part of the reservation.

Utah's School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, or SITLA, has long wanted to swap state lands for mineral-rich tracts managed by the Bureau of Land Management, though the idea is controversial.

Bishop has been working for months with a large number of different stakeholders in the state, including conservation and local county leaders, on a number of public lands proposals that strive to balance energy development with other uses, including new wilderness designations (Greenwire, Oct. 22, 2013).

Environmentalists praised Bishop and Hatch for championing H.R. 356.

The Desolation Canyon area has long been a target of oil and gas development. BLM in 2012 approved a plan to drill as many as 1,300 natural gas wells in the next 15 years across more than 206,000 acres of mostly federal land. BLM's plan calls for using directional drilling techniques to stay away from sensitive areas, but critics say it will still harm the Desolation Canyon wilderness study area.

The Wilderness Society is part of a coalition of conservation groups that filed a federal lawsuit in Salt Lake City this year challenging the Interior Department's approval of the project (E&ENews PM, Jan. 22, 2013).

"This legislation will help protect one of the most ecologically critical and culturally sensitive lands in the country," Paul Spitler, director of wilderness campaigns at the Wilderness Society, said in a statement. "At the same time, it will increase revenue for the Utah schools and the tribe. It is a win for the environment, the tribe and the state.

"We applaud Congressman Bishop and Senator Hatch for their leadership and commitment in securing passage of this important bill," Spitler added.

The Bishop-Hatch bill was one of a slew of natural resources bills approved this week by the Senate, including measures that would increase the size of an Oregon national monument and create a national park in Maryland (E&E Daily, July 10).

Bishop said in a statement that he was happy the bill found favor with Democrats and Republicans alike.

"I am pleased that we are finally able to get this long-sought exchange to the President's desk. Today, that's not such an easy endeavor," he said in a statement. "This bill importantly takes into account the interests of both the Ute tribe and the State of Utah. It offers necessary protection to sensitive cultural lands while providing new opportunities to generate revenue for Utah's public education."