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SALT LAKE CITY — The much-awaited, much-touted public lands initiative dubbed the "Grand Bargain" is slated to be released in draft form March 27, along with a map that carves out land-use designations for a huge chunk of eastern Utah.
Utah's congressional delegation announced Wednesday they are putting the final touches on the massive proposal, which involves a geographic blueprint covering 18 million acres of federal lands and 1.6 million acres of wilderness study areas in the state.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, the chief architect of the process, said the draft measure is giant in scope.
"I think we will have a decent bill that will be big," Bishop said. "It will provide all sorts of things for everybody, and something for everybody to complain about."
On Feb. 15, participants in the process will mark a three-year milestone of negotiation, bartering, compromise, concessions and begrudging acceptance as they have worked through more than 60 detailed proposals.
"The goal then was to bring land-use certainty, economic development, land conservation, and enhanced land models to eastern Utah counties," according to a letter sent out Wednesday by Utah's congressional delegation. "We're pleased to report that our goals are still very much attainable and we're on track to move forward in the near future."
The goal then was to bring land-use certainty, economic development, land conservation, and enhanced land models to eastern Utah counties. We're pleased to report that our goals are still very much attainable and we're on track to move forward in the near future.
–Utah congressional delegation letter
Seven counties — Carbon, Daggett, Emery, Grand, San Juan, Summit and Uintah — are seated at the table, as well as 120 interest groups that include the oil and gas industry, archaeological associations, environmental organizations, sportsmen clubs and conservation interests.
Bishop said it will be time for those diverse interests to show how committed they are to abandoning litigation and the bickering that has dominated discussions over how to use the land.
"People will get a chance to say if they are really serious. We will see if they are willing to push it to success or if they want to go back to the good old days, which were not so good, of bickering and lawsuits," he said.
So far, the congressional offices have hosted nearly 1,000 meetings, with employees logging more than 50,000 miles and spent hours upon hours dissecting maps and rewriting proposals as part of the public lands initiative.
The process has been about coming up with a detailed proposal that attempts to solve long-festering disputes on what is best for particular geographic regions of the state.
Bishop has said most agree oil and gas development is an appropriate activity in some places, given the landscape and resources of the area, and other areas should be obviously off limits to resource extraction and preserved for wilderness or recreational characteristics.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and others have said they've had assurances by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell that any new monument designations for Utah are on hold pending the success of the process.
The letter concedes that full consensus has not been reached and some groups may oppose what's ultimately released, but architects involved in the process are hopeful the draft is pretty close to the final product.
Supporters of the process point to about 80 different land-related bills passed by Congress in December as part of the National Defense Reauthorization Act as indication there may be political appetite for passage of this measure.
Last year, the bills that received endorsement made additions to the National Park system and added about 245,000 acres of new wilderness. The measures also involved land trades that opened up copper mining opportunities and made provisions for other mining activity.
"It was a pretty sweeping package of bills, with a lot of bipartisan support," said Paul Spitler, director of wilderness campaigns for The Wilderness Society.
"I think what that bill shows is that even in Washington, D.C., compromise is possible and it is possible to develop legislation that has broad, partisan support, even in the heavily partisan environment of Washington, D.C.," he said.
Spitler says he has been encouraged by the Utah effort and believes it is possible to achieve success on many levels.
"We have done an awful lot of work with stakeholders in Utah to get a win-win solution," he said. "There will be additional economic development opportunities for communities and additional conservation of worthy lands."
Bishop cautioned that no one should expect to be completely satisfied, however.
"I hope everyone realizes that the goal is to produce some finality here," he said. "We can't let loose ends lie. If some people are upset because they did not get everything, I cannot solve for that. No one is going to get everything they want. I will not create a process that allows the lawsuits and bickering to continue on. If we do that, we are wasting time."