Environews for March 2019

By Amy Brunvand

We turn a tap and expect the water to flow. Where water comes from and how it’s delivered is “hidden” to us. Somehow, it crosses a jumble of political divisions and property lines and arrives at our taps. – hiddenwater.org

Utah public lands get a pretty good bill

Just last year things were looking desperate for conservation of Utah’s public lands. The Republican-controlled U.S. Congress had allowed the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF)  to expire, eliminating an important source of money to purchase public land for conservation and recreation.  Utah’s congressional delegation was railing against the Antiquities Act of 1906 that allows Presidents to designate National Monuments; Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Representative John Curtis (R-Utah-3) had introduced a very bad Emery County Public Land Management Act full of anti-conservation poison pills.

So it was a big surprise in February when the U.S. Senate passed the Natural Resources Management Act and it was not terrible. This 662-page bill is a package of about 100 pieces of public lands legislation including permanent funding for LWCF and a cleaned-up version of the Emery County Bill. It gives wilderness protection to 663,000 aces in the San Rafael Swell; gives Wild and Scenic River designation to sections of the Green River corridor through Desolation Canyon and Labyrinth Canyon ; creates a new Jurassic National Monument at the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry; upgrades Golden Spike to a national historic park; and enlarges Goblin Valley State Park by 6,261 acres (the land reverts to federal management if it’s not used as a state park).

No one side got everything they wanted, but no stakeholders came out a total loser either. Senator Mitt Romney (R-Utah) voted in favor of the bill, while Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) voted no and issued a petulant statement against LWCF.

Representative John Curtis (R-UT-3) deserves thanks for his role in listening to stakeholders in order to revise the Emery County portion of the bill.

The next step is for the legislation to pass the House so that it can be signed into law.

More controversy over Inland Port

Another conflict of interest has developed over plans to build a massive ”inland port” in Salt Lake City’s Northwest Quadrant.

Envision Utah, which refers to itself as a neutral facilitator, was asked to conduct a community engagement process for the development even though they had also bid $475,000 to conduct a business plan for the port.

The massive industrial development threatens to harm Great Salt Lake wetlands and increase pollution in westside neighborhoods. Connections between members of Envision Utah’s Board and Northwest Quadrant property owners seem questionable.

The State and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) owns property proposed for a BNSF railroad facility, while BNSF railroad is owned by the parent company of Rocky Mountain Power. Both SITLA and Rocky Mountain Power provide funding for Envision Utah and SITLA’s .director is on Envision Utah’s board.

“There is a perception of conflict here that must be addressed,” says Richard Holman, co-chair of the Westside Coalition.

Nonetheless, Envision Utah has launched a public survey that presents the Inland Port as a “landmark opportunity” and a done deal.

Heather Dove, President of Great Salt Lake Audubon, points out, “If Envision Utah was operating as a truly unbiased agent, its planning process would include a no-build option which is the gold standard of objective process planning.”

The Inland Port has been plagued by conflicts of interest from the start. Former House Speaker Greg Hughes, who rushed the bill to create a Port Authority through the Utah Legislature, appointed himself to the Inland Port Authority Board. He was forced to resign because he owned property affected by the development.

Survey: Tell Envision Utah what you Really Think about the Inland Port.

Trump ‘energy dominance’ unpopular in the West

President Trump’s “energy dominance” agenda for Western public lands is deeply unpopular among Western voters, according to the 2019 “Conservation in the West” poll from Colorado College.

The annual poll surveys voters in the Mountain West about policies that impact the use and protection of public lands.  Seventy percent of Western voters identified themselves as “outdoor recreation enthusiasts,” and 63% said that the ability to live near public lands is a factor for why they live in the West. Sixty-five percent of voters said that they want the new Congress to put more emphasis on conservation rather than producing more domestic energy.

As for removing National Monument protections, even Utahns thought removing that was a bad change (56%) compared to  66% from all Western states.

2019 Conservation in the West Poll.

Oil lobbyist nominated for interior secretary

On February 4. President Trump nominated deputy interior secretary and former oil industry lobbyist David Bernhardt to replace the ethically challanged Ryan Zinke as Secretary of the Interior. Bernhardt has been acting as Interior Secretary since January.

The Western Values Project calls Berhnardt “the ultimate DC swamp creature” and says he is too conflicted to lead. During the government shutdown, Bernhardt allowed grazing, mining and oil and gas development to continue despite lack of government oversight. As deputy interior secretary, he was involved in rescinding climate change mitigation policies, undermining the Endangered Species Act and opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas leasing.

In a comment on the nomination, Senator Tom Udall (D- New Mexico) said, “I have serious concerns regarding Mr. Bernhardt’s record of working almost exclusively for corporations to profit off of America’s natural resources at the high cost of polluting our environment—concerns I also had when he was nominated to serve as deputy secretary. There are many reasons to be skeptical that, as interior secretary, Mr. Bernhardt will faithfully pursue the mission of this critical agency to protect and manage our threatened public lands, waters, environment, and wildlife for future generations. We do not need another secretary with a polluters over people agenda—who opens the door to corporate lobbyists and donors while shutting out Native voices, the scientific community, and the American people.”

The choice of interior secretary has an oversized effect on Utah since the Department of Interior includes the National Park Service that manages Utah’s five national parks and oversees the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) which manages nearly 22.9 million acres of Utah public lands.

As of this writing, a confirmation hearing for Bernhardt has not been scheduled.

San Juan County government calls to restore Bears Ears

In February, the  San Juan County Commission passed two resolutions to condemn President Donald Trump for illegally reducing the size of Bears Ears National Monument and to restore the original monument boundaries. In 2017, a federal judge required San Juan County to re-redraw racially gerrymandered council districts.

The three-person San Juan County Commission became majority Navajo in the 2018 general election.

Friends of Cedar Mesa opposes BLM leases

Friends of Cedar Mesa has filed a lawsuit to block oil and gas leasing of BLM lands in Alkali Ridge and Montezuma Canyon.

“A total of 1,346 ancient sites have been recorded in the lease area, 984 of which have been deemed eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places—this despite the fact that very limited scientific study has been undertaken in the area,” according to the lawsuit. Numerous indigenous tribes consider sites in the leased area sacred.

Friends of Cedar Mesa is the only conservation non-profit exclusively focused on the cultural and natural resources on the public lands of San Juan County.

Friends of Cedar Mesa.

Utah Legislature 2019 General Session ends March 14

Heads up!  If your favorite environmental group sends you a legislative action alert, it might require urgent action. There are good and bad environmental bills on the table.

You can be sure that Utah legislators will hear from industry lobbyists. Make sure they hear from you as well! Here are some useful links:

HEAL Utah bill tracker

Citizen Lobbying with HEAL Utah

Sierra Club (Utah Chapter) bill tracker

Breathe Utah bill tracker

DEQ Environmental bill tracker

Utah Legislature (click on My Legislators to find out who represents you).

This article was originally published on March 1, 2019.