Lawmakers from Utah are backing a public lands bill they say will scale back roughly 660 million acres owned by the federal government to balance conservation with economic development in their state.
The Utah Public Lands Initiative encompasses 18 million acres of federal land in Utah and includes provisions to expand Arches National Park, designate acreage for recreation and economic development, and build a new national monument.
Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz, both R-Utah, last week introduced the long-anticipated bill after spending more than three years meeting with stakeholders ranging from ranchers to conservation groups.
The federal government owns one out of every two acres in the West, enveloping more land there than any other region. The Public Lands Initiative would reallocate 1.05 million acres to private and state control for new recreation and economic development opportunities. To ensure environmental protection, the plan would create 40 additional wilderness areas in Utah, covering more than 2.2 million acres.
Bishop, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, calls the measure “The Grand Bargain” and says Utah’s future relies on a balance of “conservation and development.”
“Much of the debate has centered on the idea that multiple-use [development] and land conservation is an either or proposition,” Bishop wrote in an op-ed. “I flatly reject this notion. Conservation and multiple-use can coexist.”
In a prepared statement, the Utah Republican said the legislation would spur economic development to increase funding for schools and create jobs. His office said the initiative would resolve unsettled land disputes among competing groups over legal use or ownership.
His co-sponsor, Chaffetz, is chairman of the Government Reform and Oversight Committee.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, intends to sponsor companion legislation in the Senate. In a prepared statement, Lee said:
Not only does this bill secure valuable land for natural resource development to fund public schools; not only does it promote conservation and recreation; but it also protects those with existing interests on federal lands and will insulate the participating counties from future disruptive federal action.
But conservation groups and native tribes remain skeptical.
“The draft … is an un-wilderness bill,” Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said. “Effectively, less wilderness would be protected in Utah if this bill passed than what is currently managed for the public.”
Nick Loris, an economist at The Heritage Foundation, lauded the initiative for shifting responsibility and ownership of land to the state, arguing there is “no compelling reason” for the federal government to own as much land as it does.
“Putting Washington in charge of the West has resulted in lost economic opportunity, has taken decisions away from local citizens and in many instances resulted in environmental degradation because of federal government’s land mismanagement,” Loris told The Daily Signal.
The transfer of ownership would give local governments and the state improved land use along with greater environmental protection, he said.
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