SALT LAKE CITY - An effort by Congressman Rob Bishop to bring environmentalists and rural counties to the table on the future use of federal lands in eastern Utah is picking up steam.
At a unique Wednesday meeting, environmentalists and a representative from the congressman's office spoke optimistically of negotiations that would accommodate development, and also designate other areas for wilderness protection.
"I'm cautiously optimistic that this will be a beneficial process. The timing is absolutely perfect," Dan Mayhew, Utah chair of the Sierra Club, said of the initiative.
To date Bishop has held more than 100 meetings and lobbied for give-and-take from both counties and environmental groups.
David Garbett, an attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, described Bishop's effort as a good opportunity to resolve some of the issues dividing the two groups. He said Bishop is in a unique position to bring officials from eastern Utah counties to the table.
After years of divisive debate, Bishop has brought 119 different parties to the table, including representatives from Carbon, Emery, Grand, Uintah, San Juan and Wayne counties.
Wayne Bradshaw, an employee for the congressman, said the emphasis of the negotiations is counties will have to use wilderness as the currency to potentially negotiate access for potential development on some federal lands.
"Let's designate areas that need some protection and then let's find areas for outdoor recreation and areas for energy development," Bradshaw said of the negotiations. He said Bishop hopes to have a rough proposal this fall for consideration.
Bishop has maintained it's possible to preserve wilderness and accommodate development at the same time. He said he is eager to secure recreational opportunities on federal lands in the future and to potentially generate more tax revenue for state schools as a result of potential development.
Approximately 67 percent of the land in Utah is owned by the federal government, with land already set aside for monuments, conservation areas, national parks or wilderness study. About 4.3 million acres have been leased for oil and gas exploration by the Bureau of Land Management.
Bradshaw knows things can change. He described the current optimism between the two groups as a honeymoon stage and said there are no lines on a map or no specifics to Bishop's plan.
"The sense is that people are tired of this gridlock. You have to be willing to give something in this process to get something out of it," Bradshaw said.
Garbett said the possibility President Barrack Obama could potentially use the Antiquities Act to designate more national monuments --- especially the Greater Canyonlands and the San Rafael Swell -- has also created an eagerness from some officials to get something in place.
"The concern is if Utah and Utahns don't put together something to deal with public lands that the president will take his own action," Garbett said.