After touring portions of San Juan County with a large group of interested parties on August 9, a one-hour public meeting was held in the San Juan County Commission chambers.
A crowd estimated at up to 200 people filled the chambers and spilled into the hallways. Ongoing frustration over the actions of the federal government was evident during the public meeting.
Rep. Bishop, who represents northern Utah in the House of Representatives, is the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation. He explained that, as chairman, he is in a position to move through Congress a bill that addresses public lands in the area.
A similar Washington County Public Lands Bill passed through Congress several years ago and was signed into law.
Rep. Bishop explained that he did not support the Washington County Land Bill, but he supports the process to create a local Public Lands Bill. He said the local bill will be presented as a stand-alone piece of legislation and not be included in a massive Omnibus Bill, as was the Washington County bill.
The meeting was intended to introduce the idea of the bill to local residents and to help develop a plan.
A large number of local, state and federal agencies were involved, in addition to tribal groups, industry groups and environmental groups.
The field trip alone was attended by dozens of people, including the Congressmen and their staffs, Commissioners and employees from San Juan and Grand counties, representatives from state government and Governor Gary Herbert, representatives from the office of Senator Orrin Hatch, and State and Institutional Trust Lands members.
Industry and advocacy groups on the field trip included the Western Energy Alliance, Fidelity, Utah Mining Association, Blue Ribbon Coalition, SPEAR, USA-ALL, Red Rock 4 Wheelers, Trout Unlimited, Farm Bureau, Utah Cattlemen, Western Spirit Cycling and the Sage Brush Coalition.
Environmental and advocacy groups on the field trip included the Grand Canyon Trust, The Wilderness Society, Sierra Club, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, and The Nature Conservancy.
Representatives of other groups did not participate in the field trip, but did attend the public meeting. They include the Navajo Nation and Diné Bakeyah.
The wide range of groups “at the table” was a concern to several local residents at the public meeting. They expressed suspicion at the intentions of many of the outside groups.
Rep. Chaffetz, who represents the San Juan County area in the House of Representatives, said that he can understand the hesitancy of local residents to work with outside groups, but warned that not doing so may create bigger problems.
“I fear that the worse thing we could is to do nothing,” said Rep. Chaffetz more than a dozen times over the course of the meeting.
A growing concern is that President Barack Obama may use the Antiquities Act to create the proposed Greater Canyonlands National Monument. The monument, which is receiving the support of a number of advocates, would designate much of the public land west of Highway 191 and north of Highway 95 as a national monument.
Rep. Bishop explained that similar public lands bills in Wyoming and Alaska were designed in such a way that public lands issues were addressed in detail. In addition, the bills took away the executive branch ability to use the Antiquities Act to unilaterally designate large swaths of public land as a national monument.
County officials have been working on a public lands bill for months. A committee of county employees was assembled to investigate the options and create a preliminary recommendation.
Among the issues they investigated is to develop a bill that could benefit San Juan County interests as they relate to the Gunnison sage grouse, the proposed Greater Canyonlands National Monument, vehicle access, mineral extraction, grazing rights, Wilderness Study Areas, and more.
A series of additional field trips have been held or are planned to determine if the large number of groups can reach agreement on a public lands plan.
A representative from Rep. Bishop’s office said that the meeting was helpful in clearing up some misinformation about the process. She said that the bill will be crafted by people on the ground and will include input from all parties involved. She said that the Congressmen are not dictating any aspect of the process and simply hope that the bill will give great certainty to all public lands matters in San Juan County.