Spearheading the meeting were Rep. Rob Bishop and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, both Republicans. Bishop, who is a member of the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee, was recently named chairman of the subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation. He and Chaffetz are working with state and local officials, along with environmental groups, energy industry officials, tribal leaders, and stakeholders to create a public lands bill that will address how lands are to be used.
Chaffetz said the overall goal is to create a “win-win scenario” that will be amenable to both ends of the political spectrum, and to replace uncertainty with certainty in regards to public land use.
“We all have our differences,” said Utah State Sen. David Hinkins (R-Ferron), who also participated in the meeting. “We’re going to try to do the best we can to please everybody.”
Both Chaffetz and Bishop stressed the importance of working closely with local leaders. They also visited other southeastern Utah counties during their recent tour, saying that the regional, multi-county approach they are employing will help them get a better sense of the issues involved.
“This is one of those things we want to make sure is done from the bottom up,” said Bishop.
Grand County Council member Lynn Jackson encouraged those present to “work together in the spirit of cooperation.”
“Many people have a stake in the long-term management of our lands,” Jackson said.
During the two-hour meeting, more than two-dozen constituents took a turn at the microphone, sharing their viewpoints and asking questions of the congressmen. The speakers seemed to be evenly divided between the two major camps: pro-wilderness advocates who favor strict environmental protection, and those who favor a multiple land-use approach, including roads and uses for recreation, tourism, and industrial development.
Some citizens cited what they believe to be detrimental health effects of energy development, saying uranium mining in particular had led to increased lung cancer deaths. But other speakers identified themselves as members of local mining families going back generations, and said the Moab community owed its existence to them.
“I believe in multiple use of lands,” said Mike Holyoak, one such multi-generation Moabite.
Another, Michelle Walker, cautioned against “people who try to use the environment as an excuse to control others.”
“Don’t close the lands,” Walker said.
A few citizens pointed out that significant amounts of water are needed for oil and gas development, and said water use should also be considered as a major factor.
“Water in this area is becoming more and more scarce,” said Chris Baird, a former member of the Grand County Council. Baird said oil and gas leases often are awarded on top of water protection zones.
Mike Binyon, who said he worked more than 40 years in the construction business, warned about the loss of resources on the lands once they are developed.
“Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever. Believe me, they’ll never come back again,” he said.
Other topics addressed during the meeting included state vs. federal control of public lands, nuclear power, land management plans, and issues related to lands that generate revenue for public education.
“It’s good to see a community this engaged,” Chaffetz said as he thanked those in attendance. “I really do appreciate what your county council is doing. If we can do that with the other counties in the region, I think we can accomplish something that we can all be proud of.”
Chaffetz said that a paradigm shift in thinking is needed, with multiple parties “thinking outside the box” for potential solutions.
“When people say it takes an act of Congress to do something, it is a very long and hard process,” he said.
Chaffetz said he believes it is possible to find a workable balance between development of energy resources and preservation of wild lands. He said Utahns should strive to be self-sufficient when it comes to energy, but added, “I think we can do it in an environmentally friendly way. We’re moving in the right direction, and who knows what the United States Senate is going to do?”
Bishop said he is encouraged by the response he’s received thus far, and has been getting support and assistance from top Democrats, including the newly appointed Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who is the chairman of the U.S. Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
“They’re very supportive of what we’re trying to do,” Bishop said. “This is a rare window of opportunity to get something done.”
Bishop said he and his staff hope to have a draft of the bill ready by the end of the year.
Although both Bishop and Chaffetz acknowledged that getting such a bill drafted, let alone passed, is a daunting task, both said they remain committed to the challenge. Hundreds of meetings have already taken place, with many more to come, they said.
Members of the congressmen’s staffs, along with local officials, also led a public tour of the Moab area on Tuesday, Aug. 13. The 100-mile, day-long trip included stops at the Bar M bike trails, the Red Wash overview of the Ten Mile area, the Needles Overlook in Canyonlands National Park, oil and gas resources near the Cowboy Camp area, and Dead Horse Point State Park.
Chaffetz and Bishop said they will continue to welcome public comment on the public lands bill and related issues via their respective official U.S. House of Representatives websites at house.gov.