bagley 7-13-16With the congressional recess looming and a Bears Ears national monument building steam, Utah Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz hastily introduced their Public Lands Initiative on July 14th.

The bill does little to protect Utah’s magnificent redrock country.  Its provisions aim instead at rolling back existing protection for wild places, furthering the state’s attempted land grab, and accelerating fossil fuel development.  It doesn’t come close to protecting the Bears Ears region, but then it wouldn’t: the measure’s real goal is to thwart proclamation of a Bear Ears national monument.

Before the duo could return to action on their bill after the recess, the conservation community turned out in force for a packed public meeting with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on Bears Ears protection.

At a hearing before the House Subcommittee on Federal Lands in September, the sponsors touted the bill as conservation-friendly, born of compromise and widely supported by local elected officials, motorized recreationists, industry groups, and other stakeholders.

Reps. Bishop and Chaffetz cast opponents, including SUWA and the rest of the conservation community, as “shrill voices out there realizing that if we actually bring finality on this issue, they’ll be out of work.”

Not Buying the Blather
The Obama administration didn’t buy the spurious claims; neither did our redrock champions on the committee.  The Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition all testified against the measure. Reps. Niki Tsongas (MA), Raul Grijalva (AZ), Alan Lowenthal (CA), and Jared Polis (CO) voiced their own staunch opposition.  Tsongas, the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat and longtime redrock advocate, dismissed the bill as “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

“All told,” she added, “despite the many years of effort, this is not a legislative proposal that has a realistic chance of being passed by the Senate or signed into law by President Obama.”

Grijalva, ranking minority member of the Natural Resources Committee, termed the bill a “non-starter” that “tilts the scales dramatically in favor of development and motorized use and away from responsible conservation.”

Judging by the full committee markup the following week, Bishop was unmoved by his colleagues’ concerns.  Grijalva, Tsongas, Lowenthal, Polis, and Raul Ruiz (CA) all offered reasonable amendments to remedy some of the bill’s worst flaws. Bishop’s majority rejected them all, and Bishop himself offered the only amendment the committee accepted, a routine fix of technical changes—typos, grammatical errors, etc.

The PLI passed the stacked committee on a party line vote.  Still, the fact that legislators from across the country so stoutly resisted the bill must have been sobering to its sponsors.  The PLI was correctly seen as a measure that fixes nothing and breaks quite a lot.  The hearing was a reminder that these lands belong to all Americans and that there is a growing national constituency for protecting them. This will serve us well should the bill reach the House floor during the lame-duck session.

As Rep. Lowenthal said in the first legislative hearing, “We’ve had a long history of vigorously debating the future of our public lands, but the arc has been bent toward the long-term preservation of our public lands to be used by the many instead of the privatization or development for the profits of the few.”  The PLI represents a significant departure from this proud legacy.

We’ll let you know if and when this legislation raises its ugly head again—and what you can do to help stop it.

­­–Jordan Giaconia

(From Redrock Wilderness newsletter, autumn/winter 2016 issue)