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Environmental Groups Say Curtis' Office Overstated Their 'Support' For Latest Public Lands Bill

BLM land outside of Goblin Valley State Park in Emery County, Utah.
Claire Jones

Updated 5:40 p.m. MT 


A congressional subcommittee last week overstated the support that environmental groups have for a public lands bill pushed by Utah Congressman John Curtis that aims to conserve a large swath of the San Rafael Swell.

An aide to Curtis, R-Provo, said Monday there was a mix-up and says the record will be corrected.


The flap comes at a time when environmental groups are often excluded from negotiations about lands legislation crafted in the Republican-controlled Congress. But Curtis has included some conservation groups in the dialog surrounding his Emery County Public Land Management Act. Those groups, in turn, have praised him for inviting them this time to the bargaining table — if not to an actual hearing on the proposed legislation.


But several environmental organizations contacted KUER after their names were included in a story last week about Thursday’s hearing on Curtis’ bill. Seven environmental organizations were named as being in support of the legislation in a June 18 background memo ahead of a hearing before the Federal Lands Subcommittee. But just one — the Pew Charitable Trusts — said it’s accurate to call them “supporters.”

The bill would permanently protects land now designated as Wilderness Study Areas and establishes a new conservation area, called the San Rafael Swell Western Heritage and Historic Mining District. The legislation also would create a new “Jurassic National Monument” at the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry.


Supporters of the legislation include the Emery County Commission, the Utah Association of Counties and Utah Republican Gov. Gary Herbert.


Meanwhile, a dozen environmental groups — six of which were listed by name in the hearing memo — have said they want to see changes in the San Rafael bill before they endorse it.Another organization listed as a supporter in the memo, Trout Unlimited, said it has no position on the bill but does back an inclusive negotiation process.


Erik Murdock, policy director of the climbing advocacy group, the Access Fund, told KUER News his group was “misrepresented” when it was called a supporter of the legislation, and does not endorse the current bill.


“We have been supporting the process” of developing the bill, Murdock said. “That may have been misconstrued.”


On Monday, Katie Thompson, a spokeswoman for Curtis, said there was a distinction that should have been made by the staff of the Federal Lands subcommittee ahead of Thursday’s hearing. All of the groups support the “process,” Thompson said in an email to KUER.


“We actually flagged this important distinction for the committee last week, who writes all hearing content, and reminded them again today to change it,” she said. “They’ve told us the hearing memo will be changed today to reflect that nuance.”


Thompson also pointed out that, when Curtis introduced the bill on Thursday, that he put into the hearing record “letters of support, or positive comments regarding our [negotiation] process.”


After Thursday’s hearing, both the hearing and Curtis’ bill were targeted for criticism by five other conservation groups, including the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and the Sierra Club. The groups said they hadn’t been offered an opportunity to testify on a bill they describe as “terrible.”


In a joint statement, the groups said more than 900,000 acres of proposed wilderness in Emery County was “being left unprotected.” They also criticized provisions that allow “destructive motor vehicle routes” that have been ruled illegal in the courts.


Thompson, Curtis’ spokeswoman, said the bill is far from final. Negotiations continue as the San Rafael Swell before the legislation heads to a committee, then possibly a floor vote. There’s been no action on the companion version introduced by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.


“This legislation has been decades in the making and is a careful balance and compromise between many organizations, our office, Senator Hatch’s office, and most importantly the local officials in Emery County,” Thompson said.


Hatch and Curtis called the bill “historic” when they introduced it last month.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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