On January 20, Congressmen Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz unveiled a “discussion draft” of the Utah Public Lands Initiative Act. The proposed bill undertakes the difficult task of balancing economic development and conservation on public land in the State of Utah.
Congressmen Bishop and Chaffetz began working together on the bill in February 2013. Since that time, more than 120 different stakeholders have submitted more than 65 detailed proposals regarding land management in eastern Utah. Altogether, their offices have held more than 1,200 meetings with local and tribal leaders, interested parties, and subject matter experts.
The bill is organized in two parts: “Division A” covers land protection and conservation and “Division B” covers recreation and economic development opportunities.
Division A creates forty-one new wilderness areas covering 2,274,373 acres of federal land. Wilderness is a legal designation designed to provide long-term protection and conservation of public lands. Wilderness areas are protected and managed so as to preserve the area’s natural surroundings in an unimpaired condition. Generally, motor vehicles and mechanical transport are prohibited in wilderness areas. However, the proposed bill makes certain exceptions for maintaining grazing facilities and access to water resource facilities.
Division A also creates fourteen new National Conservation Areas covering 1,835,085 acres of federal land. Restrictions vary between these conservation areas, but generally they are not leased or sold under mining laws and motorized vehicle use is restricted. The proposed bill allows oil and gas leasing in a few of the areas so long as the area is accessed by directional drilling from adjacent land outside of the conservation area.
In addition to the wilderness and conservation areas, the bill would create seven new Special Management Areas covering 94,958 acres and expand Arches National Park by 19,255 acres. In total, Division A of the bill would take steps to conserve over 4 million acres of federal land in Utah.
The second half of the legislation covers recreation and economic development opportunities. The bill designates a little over a million acres for recreation and energy development, allowing for energy development in areas not already protected or in conservation designations under his measure. It also expedites the federal process for permits and protests, narrowing the window for such procedures to 60 days.
Under the bill the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration will exchange with the federal government land valued for its recreation or scenic qualities for lands better suited for energy development. This exchange would allow the agency to better maximize revenues for the benefit of state educational institutions.
Division B of the bill will also expand Goblin Valley State Park by conveying nearly 10,000 acres of federal land to the Utah Department of Natural Resources and by creating a 156,540 acre co-management area. Additionally, the BLM is tasked with exchanging approximately 13,000 acres of land with the state of Utah in order to consolidate state land to create the Price Canyon State Forest, which would be the first of its kind in the state.
The bill also calls for multiple miscellaneous land transfers from the federal government to the state for purposes ranging from airport usage to public shooting ranges.
Some of the most interesting provisions of the bill relate to the so-called “energy planning areas.” These are areas not already protected and are open to energy development. The bill directs the BLM to expedite the federal process for permits and protests, narrowing the window for such procedures to 60 days.
This expedited process will greatly reduce the timeline for getting energy projects underway. Under the current process, long delays have impaired and discouraged investments in mineral development projects in Utah, which has become a significant player nationally in oil and gas production. In 2014, Utah produced nearly 41 million barrels of oil. Oil and gas is currently produced in eleven of Utah’s twenty-nine counties with Duchesne county leading the way in oil production and Uintah county on top in natural gas production.