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GOP Sens. Mitt Romney, Mike Lee on opposite sides of sweeping public lands bill

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's Republican senators canceled out each other's vote on a massive bipartisan public lands bill that sailed through the U.S. Senate on Tuesday.

Sen. Mike Lee voted against the package of more than 100 public lands, natural resources and water bills, while Sen. Mitt Romney voted for it. It passed 92-8. The bill now moves to the U.S. House for consideration.

"If you believe that Utah’s public lands are best managed by Utahns close to those lands, then today’s National Resource Management Act was a big step in the wrong direction," Lee said.

Still, Lee said he's optimistic Congress can do better next time and that he looks forward to working with the Utah delegation on legislation that "empowers Utahns, not Washington bureaucrats."

Romney, one of 15 Republican and Democrat co-sponsors of the bill, said local interests drove the measure.

"This legislation is the culmination of years of collaboration and cooperation between Utah county commissioners and local conservation groups, ranchers, recreationists and others," he said. "As a result, it includes important provisions that were crafted and driven at the local level instead of by Washington bureaucrats."

The bill would permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, increase hunting, fishing and recreational access to federal lands, conserve lands of special importance and provide economic development in communities through land exchanges.

In Utah, it creates 661,000 acres of wilderness and 248,000 acres of recreation areas. It gives 80 acres of Bureau of Land Management Land to Hyde Park in Cache County for the construction of an underground water tank and 2.6 acres of Forest Service land to Juab County.

The bill also designates the Jurassic National Monument in Emery County and the Golden Spike National Historic Site as the Golden Spike National Historical Park for the 150th anniversary of the connecting of the transcontinental railroad. It also includes 63 miles of wild and scenic river designations and 6,200 acres for expansion of Goblin Valley State Park.

Although he believes the bill has some good policies for the state, Lee said prior to Tuesday's vote that it's not legislation "I can vote for in good conscience."

"On balance, the bill moves federal lands policy in the wrong direction by failing to reform federal land acquisition programs and adding new restrictions to how Americans are allowed to use land already under federal control," he wrote in a Deseret News op-ed.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, reintroduced the package in January. Lee derailed it just before Congress adjourned last year when he objected to it moving forward on consent because it did not exempt Utah from the Antiquities Act.

On Monday, Lee again unsuccessfully tried to amend the bill to remove Utah from the law presidents use to create national monuments.

While Lee said the bill takes a step in the wrong direction, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance called it a "tremendous" step forward.

“While this agreement came with some difficult choices, it brings long-term protection to this spectacular landscape," said Scott Groene, SUWA executive director.

The legislation brought together differing viewpoints at a time when the nation is deeply divided, he said, crediting retired Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., for brokering the deal.

"Passing this legislation involved compromises, and landscapes deserving protection were left out," Groene said. "Nonetheless, this bill is good for Utah, and good for the United States."

Lee also opposes the legislation because he said it shifts too much power away from Utah communities and to bureaucrats in Washington. At first blush, he said, the creation of wilderness is a good thing but it actually limits more activities than is necessary to protect the land.

"Citizens must go to the federal government, hat in hand, to ask permission for any use of the land at all — whether to dig a well, build a road, bury a cable or do virtually anything on it. So designating more than half a million acres of wilderness — most of which is in Emery County — is a big blow," he wrote.

Romney doesn't address that specifically in his op-ed. He said historic and cultural sites deserve protection. "But process matters, and national monuments should be established with congressional input and with the involvement of our legislature — where local voices can be heard, transparency reigns and sensible policy is produced," he wrote.

"Integrating local voices into public lands management and conserving the environment are not mutually exclusive," he said.

"We can conserve wildlife, protect historic sites, maintain access and preserve Utah’s public lands in a way that reflects the priorities of rural Utahns," Romney said.

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Dennis Romboy
Dennis Romboy is an editor and reporter for the Deseret News. He has covered a variety of beats over the years, including state and local government, social issues and courts. A Utah native, Romboy earned a degree in journalism from the University of Utah. He enjoys cycling, snowboarding and running.


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