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IN THE NEWS: In our opinion--Utah Public Lands Initiative a long shot worth pursuing — still

September 8, 2014
Op-Ed and Speech

Deseret News editorial

Officially, it's called the Utah Public Lands Initiative, but it's more commonly referred to as "Bishop's public lands initiative," in deference to championing Rep. Rob Bishop. The Utah congressman also is chairman of the House Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation.

Now in its second year, the initiative continues to carry an oft-heard tag.

"Long shot."

Built on the belief that conservation and economic development can co-exist in a locally driven effort, the public lands initiative proposes solutions for some 18 million acres in eastern and southeastern Utah, with possible wilderness designations reaching 2 million acres and creating well-defined areas for recreation, oil and gas development, mining interests, potash extraction and more.

It's also built on the ideals of compromise and creativity — that trade-offs trump face-offs and that bargaining while giving up a little in a win-win situation for all sides is better than digging in with a defiant all-or-nothing attitude.

In theory, the initiative could and should work. In reality, it's an uphill battle. A long shot.

Consider the expanse of the 18 million acres and the seemingly equally numerable stakeholders invested in the land. You've got county commissioners and cattlemen, politicians and petroleum corporations, fishermen and four-wheelers, landowners and lawmakers, Native American tribes and wilderness foundations, and developers and drillers. All are interested and all are invested in their own interests.

The challenge is getting the stakeholders all invested in the public lands initiative — and it's no surprise the stakeholders often use that "long shot" label themselves.

There's varying investment in the public lands initiative on the various local fronts. Emery County has had its give-and-take proposals finalized for quite some time now. Meanwhile, some counties — including those with less land involved in the initiative — are talking about stepping away from the negotiation table. It seems like for every step forward, there's either a hesitancy to step ahead or the likelihood of stepping back.

Understandably, stakeholders who are communicating, considering and offering proposals of compromise are simultaneously continuing on with "business as usual" — individual efforts to further their objectives and protect their turfs. Because if the initiative doesn't come through, they don't want to be left alone or left behind. An example: while the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance has been negotiating in good faith with other stakeholders in initiative talks, they're still pursuing support for the proposed America's Red Rock Wilderness Act, a bill proposal to protect BLM-administered wilderness areas laden with red-rock features throughout the West.

Initiative versus act — negotiating with initiative stakeholders versus pushing for singular wilderness designation? Those aren't conflicting efforts as much as they are being ready for either scenario — committed to the initiative if it goes through, but also being ready to move in a specified direction if it doesn't.

Looming on the horizon is a proposed Greater Canyonlands National Monument, which would not only gobble up a tenth of the initiative's 18 million acres but squelch many of the stakeholders' interests. In other words, the more expansive possibility of "likely land uses" suddenly becomes the much-narrower reality of "protected land use."

The monument proposal flared up again last month when 14 U.S. senators — none from the state of Utah — wrote President Obama, encouraging him to use the Antiquities Act to establish the monument, similar to what President Clinton did in 1996 with the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Most stakeholders don't use the monument proposal as a threat when negotiating with each other nor as a ticking time bomb to prompt their own actions. But it's like a nagging reminder of what could happen if all parties don't come together to help the initiative become a reality.

As summer gives way to fall and with Bishop hopeful to introduce the initiative to Congress early next year, now's a good time to have stakeholders check their progress. Are they committed to breaking new ground or retreating to the status quo? Are they willingly testing these new alliances in the initiative or turning back to protecting their own turf?

While the "locally driven" initiative relies heavily on the involvement of individual counties, might a cooperative gathering of county leaders to discuss efforts and successes help the individual efforts? Might the state offer assistance in a "big brother" role of counsel and encouragement for the counties?

And do negotiations (or the lack thereof) in similar current land-use/wilderness conflicts — such the RS 2477 road access lawsuits involving stakeholders such as the state of Utah, most of the state's counties, SUWA and numerous landowners — serve as a foreshadow of what might and might not happen as the public lands initiative heads from the back stretch, around the final turn and toward the finish line?

That last phrase sounds like a horse-racing analogy — and rightfully so. Everyone's excited when a long-shot racing horse overcomes big odds and wins. And with this long shot, the stakeholders and the public can be excited with win-win results.

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