- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 5, 2015

OGDEN, Utah — Property rights advocates and conservatives were breathing a sigh of relief after President Obama completed his first visit to Utah without turning vast chunks of the state into a new national monument.

Mr. Obama traveled to Utah late last week just as Republican Rep. Rob Bishop, a leading opponent of the president’s campaign to declare huge swaths of Western lands off-limits to development, is preparing to unveil a new proposal that would give the state more control over the land-use process.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, took advantage of a 30-minute motorcade ride with Mr. Obama on Thursday night to lobby the president on the state’s public lands initiative, which would give Utah a larger role in defining lands for federal protection and for oil and gas development. A spokesman for the governor said it would be “helpful” if Mr. Obama comes out in support of the proposal.

A White House spokesman said Friday he didn’t know the outcome of Mr. Obama’s discussion with the governor. In his State of the Union address in 2014, Mr. Obama vowed to use more of his authority “to protect more of our pristine federal lands for future generations.”

Within hours of departing Utah on Friday, Mr. Obama thrilled environmental groups by announcing that he was finalizing plans to expand protected areas of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, calling on Congress to block about 12 million more acres of the energy-rich tract from oil and natural gas drilling.

“This area is one of the most beautiful, undisturbed places in the world,” Mr. Obama said in a letter to House Speaker John A. Boehner. “It is a national treasure and should be permanently protected through legislation for future generations.”

Alaska’s Republican senators vowed to stop the move, with Sen. Daniel Sullivan saying Mr. Obama’s attempt at “turning our state into a giant national park will not stand.”

Mr. Bishop said in an interview that his public lands effort is necessary in part because Mr. Obama, since taking office, has unilaterally created 16 national monuments under the 1906 Antiquities Act, which grants presidents the authority to protect historic or ecologically significant sites without congressional approval.

Like most Westerners, Utahans are wary of another such executive action by the president in their state. More than 60 percent of Utah’s land already is controlled by the federal government under the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service and the Department of Defense.

Dubbed the “Grand Bargain,” Mr. Bishop’s plan is expected to soon be released in draft form with a map that will specify land-use designations for much of eastern Utah. The proposal, three years in the making, will cover 18 million acres of federal lands and 1.6 million acres of wilderness study areas.

Mr. Bishop, chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, greeted Mr. Obama’s arrival at Hill Air Force Base in his district and later attended an event on the base with the president promoting a solar energy initiative. The lawmaker said Mr. Obama is setting aside millions of acres without adequate public input and abusing his authority under the Antiquities Act.

“This is a legislative function being done by the executive branch,” Mr. Bishop said. “It’s being used as a political tool for a political purpose, and that is simply wrong.”

While preparing to unveil his initiative, he has received assurances from Interior Secretary Sally Jewell that the administration won’t declare any new monuments in Utah, Mr. Bishop said.

“We’re engaged in a process of trying to come up with a plan that will bring some certainty as to what kind of lands will be used for what purposes, so that everyone has some kind of say,” Mr. Bishop said. “We’re going to do it the right way. Every indication from Secretary Jewell is that there will not be a monument in Utah, [but] we’re still making progress on that.”

Although the issue is highly partisan, Congress approved about 80 different land-related bills in December as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, adding to protected wilderness areas and expanding opportunities for mining. Advocates of Mr. Bishop’s initiative point to those compromises as an indication that his plan could gain sufficient bipartisan support.

Mr. Obama’s most recent actions to declare national monuments came in February, when he signed proclamations to establish the Pullman National Monument at an old factory site in Southside Chicago; the Browns Canyon National Monument in Colorado, a 21,000-acre site along the Arkansas River; and the Honouliuli National Monument in Hawaii, where Japanese-American citizens and prisoners of war were held in an internment camp during World War II.

Among other regions that could be designated as national monuments are the Alpine Lakes wilderness area in Washington state; Berryessa Snow Mountain in California; the Boulder-White Clouds area of central Idaho; and Desolation Canyon along the Green River in eastern Utah.

Mr. Bishop said the administration is shielding its plans from Congress — at least from Republican lawmakers.

“We’re not given squat,” he said. “We don’t know anything. I really don’t have a clue what [Mr. Obama] wants to do the next time. That’s a lousy way of running a government, and it’s a lousy way of people having a say in their government.”

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

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