Sutherland Institute: Public lands compromise is a win for conservation

By Matthew Anderson

Public lands compromise is a win for conservation
by Matthew Anderson

There is a process to producing sound public policy in America. It begins with lively debate, where essential values are articulated and the free exchange of ideas reigns supreme, and it culminates in principled compromise. Both competition and cooperation are necessary parts of this process. Without various interests posturing to present the best arguments in favor of their position, an elected body cannot fully explore the issue, and public policy will be left wanting. Once arguments and opinions have been exhausted, principled compromise comes into play, making way for resolution. One such example of this can be seen in the public lands debate.

Last week Utah Rep. Rob Bishop released the Public Lands Initiative (PLI), a comprehensive compromise which proposes solutions for 18 million acres of public lands in eastern and southeastern Utah. Public lands issues are big in Utah, and justifiably so. The federal government controls over 66 percent of the land in the state, which means dramatic impacts on economic development, outdoor recreation, public education and environmental quality.

With so many policy areas included under the umbrella of federal lands, it is no surprise that a wide variety of organizations have become enthralled with the issue. Bishop’s bill is one of the first attempts to offer farsighted compromise on public lands, taking into account the concerns of Native American tribes, the oil and gas industry, ranchers, environmental interests, and residents of the seven affected counties. Of his proposed legislation, Bishop notes, “There is something here for everyone to like and something for everyone to hate, but if you look at the totality of what we are doing, it is moving us so far forward, there is value in it.” In other words, the PLI gets to the core of principled compromise: You have to give a little to get a little.

The PLI creates 4.1 million acres of conservation and wilderness areas in exchange for roughly 1 million acres being made available for economic development and outdoor recreation. With over a four-to-one ratio in favor of conservation, an objective and reasonable observer would conclude that the PLI is a win for environmental interests. However, some groups purporting to represent the environment disagree.

Despite the PLI’s designation of 2.3 million acres of wilderness across 41 new wilderness areas, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) condemned the legislation as an “un-wilderness bill,” arguing that “less wilderness would be protected in Utah if this bill passed than what is currently managed for the public.” I’m no mathematician, but how can you logically argue that less wilderness will be protected when you are adding millions of acres to the total pot? It doesn’t seem to add up.

SUWA is not alone in condemning the public lands compromise. The Sierra Club weighed in, saying, “the draft of PLI includes provisions that are incompatible with any real conservation efforts.” One is left wondering how much more “real” conservation can be had than the creation of 4.1 million acres of new wilderness and conservation areas?

Based on their comments and the simple math of the PLI’s land designations, it seems that organizations like SUWA, the Sierra Club, and other uncompromising environmental groups are more concerned with achieving all-out political victory than with representing environmental interests in the American spirit and process of principled compromise.

The PLI is one of the largest conservation bills ever proposed in the contiguous 48 states and is a big win for environmental stewardship. Is the PLI perfect for the environment? Of course not, because it isn’t perfect for any narrow set of interests. But it is good policy crafted in the American spirit of cooperation and abandoning it for the sake of political victory does a disservice both to Utahns and to the American political system. President Franklin D. Roosevelt said “Competition has been shown to be useful up to a certain point and no further, but cooperation, which is the thing we strive for today, begins where competition leaves off.” It is time for these environmental groups to swallow their pride and pick up where competition left off.

Matthew Anderson is a policy analyst for The Coalition for Self-Government in the West, a project of Sutherland Institute.

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