SALT LAKE CITY — Two Utah congressmen on Wednesday pitched their broad plan to manage 18 million acres of the state’s land as a more locally driven way to protect a sacred Native American site than a sweeping declaration from the president.
The public lands initiative from Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz received its first hearing in Congress, but the Natural Resources subcommittee that took up the issue didn’t take a vote on the matter.
The plan, billed as a grand compromise, has been seen by Utah Republicans and local leaders as a preferable way to protect the Bears Ears region instead of permanently folding it into a national monument.
But environmental groups and others say the plan creates too many loopholes for oil and gas development, allows motorized vehicles into wild spaces and limits the way federal officials can manage the areas.
The Center for Western Priorities, one of several environmental groups opposing the plan, said in a statement that the plan doesn’t have the bipartisan support needed to be passed by Congress this year and signed into law.
“Bears Ears is still in urgent need of protection, and it’s now obvious to everyone involved that the only way that can happen is through President Obama’s leadership,” the center’s Executive Director Jennifer Rokala said.
Bishop said during the hearing Wednesday that environmental groups who oppose the plan “are shrill voices out there realizing that if we actually bring finality on this issue, they’ll be out of work.”
Chaffetz said he and Bishop “bent over backwards” to accommodate those who weighed in over three years and more than a thousand meetings with energy developers, environmental groups, local officials and more.
“If the White House would come in earnest and work with us and develop a solution, I’m sure we could get this bill to sail through in record time,” he said.
Chaffetz said a monument declaration would be arrogant and offensive.
The president’s authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act to declare monuments has been a sore spot for the state since the creation of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah 20 years ago. The monument from President Bill Clinton came over the objections of locals, who said it closed of the area to development.
President Barack Obama has not said if he will designate a 1.9 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument, as a coalition of tribes and environmentalists have asked. But Interior Secretary Sally Jewell toured the area this summer and held a public meeting, an indication that the administration is exploring the idea.
Native American tribes and conservation groups say a monument is needed to protect the land from off-road vehicle damage and looting.
The public lands initiative, by contrast, would protect about 4 million acres of public land, including part of the Bears Ears area, in in exchange for freeing up more than 1 million acres for recreation and oil and gas development.
Utah’s governor and other state GOP officials say the proposal offers more flexibility than a national monument in the Bears Ears area.