In Utah, a Land Deal that Could Change the West Forever

Outside Magazine takes a lengthy, in-depth look at Rep. Rob Bishop’s proposed Public Lands Initiative, which would preserve millions of acres of wilderness in southern Utah while opening millions more to resource extraction.

Reports Christopher Solomon:

A few years ago, if you had asked which politician would emerge as the Great Compromiser on wilderness, Bishop wouldn’t have been anybody’s first choice. Now 64, he’s a seven-term congressman from Utah’s First Congressional District, which stretches across the top of the state. The federal government manages nearly two-thirds of Utah’s land, and Bishop firmly believes Uncle Sam is terrible at the job. He has likened federal ownership to Soviet collectivism, and he argues with a pungent eloquence—he’s a former high school debate coach—that the government should get out of the stewardship game and revert the land to local management.


“When you try to control the land from a four-, five-hour flight away, the people always screw up,” he told me. He has repeatedly fought to weaken environmental laws and neuter federal agencies like the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, and the Forest Service.


Yet Bishop is no wild-eyed back-bencher. He’s chairman of the powerful House Committee on Natural Resources, with sway over issues ranging from energy production to mining, fisheries, and wildlife across one-fifth of the nation’s landmass. Last fall he helped kill renewal of the 51-year-old Land and Water Conservation Fund—which raised billions for recreation and state and federal land acquisition, until it could be overhauled. (The fund was reauthorized in mid-December, but for only three years.) The League of Conservation Votershas given Bishop a 3 percent lifetime rating. Still, he can be a powerful ally, as his work on the grand bargain shows. Bishop’s effort is a genuine attempt to solve the kinds of long-stewing western land-use conflicts that, at their worst, devolve into potential violence.


Time is running short for Bishop, however. The Obama administration has given him room to cobble together a deal with conservationists, ranchers, Native Americans, energy companies, and others—the kind of huge, grassroots pact that most parties would prefer. But if an agreement isn’t reached soon, the president appears poised to step in and do some preservation of his own, in the form of a major new national monument in eastern Utah called the Bears Ears. The clock is ticking.