Rob Bishop holds an image he says is misleading while speaking during a news conference at the Utah State Capitol, January 20, 2016, in Salt Lake City.
Rob Bishop holds an image he says is misleading while speaking during a news conference at the Utah State Capitol, January 20, 2016, in Salt Lake City.
Rob Bishop holds an image he says is misleading while speaking during a news conference at the Utah State Capitol, January 20, 2016, in Salt Lake City. (Photo: Rick Bowmer/AP)

Environmentalists’ Public-Lands Enemy Number One

Congressman Rob Bishop of Utah wants to transfer federal land to the states, gut the Endangered Species Act, and eliminate the Antiquities Act—and D.C. is starting to listen

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On a sunny day in early May, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke hiked in southeast Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument as part of a presidential order to revisit the fates of dozens of monuments nationwide. At his right strolled a man dressed in shorts, loafers, and an uncollared shirt. With his snowy white hair, the man could have been mistaken for a snowbird who’d wandered from his RV to check out the commotion—until he turned to a television camera. 

“Bears Ears is a symptom of the problem,” the man said tartly. “The disease is still the Antiquities Act.” 

The man was Republican Congressman Rob Bishop of Utah, one of the biggest fans on Capitol Hill today of handing federal public lands over to the states and reducing environmental protections on them.

Bishop is chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, which oversees legislation related to everything from energy production and mining to wildlife and irrigation on America’s 640 million acres of public lands—30 percent of the country’s estate. With Republicans in control of both houses of Congress, and with a receptive president in the White House, Bishop—who has been trying to advance these policies for years—is in a better position now than ever before to achieve his goals.

He wasted little time in getting started. On the first day of the 115th Congress in January 2017, he engineered the passage of a rules change that exempted the sale of public lands from a longstanding House practice of “pay as you go,” by which new costs must be offset by cuts or revenue increases. The change “basically greases the skids to sell or give away any public lands, because it declares them to be of zero value,” says Randi Spivak, public lands program director for the Center for Biological Diversity. In early March, Bishop published a memo to colleagues on his committee that laid out his priorities and thoughts for fiscal year 2018. In it, Bishop asked that $50 million be earmarked in an appropriations bill for conveying federal land to state, local, and tribal governments, though the funds have yet to be set aside and it's unclear if Bishop could get the money.

“We think of him as public lands enemy Number One….(t)he leader of the anti-parks caucus in congress,” says Alex Taurel, deputy legislative director for the League of Conservation Voters. The environmental group has given Bishop a 2-percent lifetime rating. A March report by the Center for Biological Diversity labeled Bishop the Number 2 “public lands enemy” out of Congress’ 435 members. (Utah swept the top three spots, with Bishop sandwiched between senators Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch.) Out of 84 bills identified by the environmental group as “anti-public lands” introduced in the House during the last three Congresses, Bishop authored or co-sponsored 30 of them. 

Bishop grew up in Kaysville, a town of 30,000 about 20 miles north of Salt Lake City. His father had been a minor-league baseball player and his mother was a secretary with the Davis County Health Department. A devout Mormon, he completed his mission in Germany in from 1970 to 1972; a copy of Das Buch Mormon still sits on the corner of his desk in his Capitol Hill office. Those who know Bishop say he is a man of deep conviction, both religious and political. Many weekends he flies home to Brigham City to see his wife, Jeralynn Hansen Bishop, a former Miss Brigham City, and to teach Sunday School. The couple has five adult children, all named for figures in the Mormon Bible.

Even-voiced and downright quiet in private, those who have worked with him say Bishop can come alive before an audience, like the community theater actor he once was. (Bishop met his wife while playing the prince in a production of “Once Upon a Mattress.”) For 28 years he stood before students, teaching high school in northern Utah—German, American history, and government. He also coached debate, and has been known to play word games with his staff, accepting their challenge of working a ‘word of the day’ or a baseball metaphor into a speech he must give.

Baseball is Bishop’s passion. His office is a mini-Cooperstown. His father’s minor-league cap sits under glass. A jersey for the Salt Lake Bees, a minor-league team for the Los Angeles Angels, hangs on a coat rack. Nearby is a framed black-and-white picture of the first Congressional baseball game, a contest that is still played, he says. He still pitches on the office softball team but jokes ruefully that, at 65, he is now practically the mascot. (“I’m not participating because they practice at six in the morning,” he says. “I’m not doing anything at six in the morning that doesn’t involve my mattress.”)

Bishop was elected to the Utah State Legislature in 1978 and over the next 16 years rose; he served his last two years as the unanimously-elected Speaker of the House. Later, in 1997, he was elected chairman of Utah’s Republican Party and served for two terms. In a 2002 profile in the Salt Lake City Weekly, a former Republican colleague in the Legislature, Afton Bradshaw, recalled complaining to Bishop about some very right-wing members of the Legislature. Bishop listened intently, Bradshaw recalled to the Weekly. Then Bishop replied, “Afton, there's not a more conservative person in this body than me.”

That’s exactly what his constituents want. In 2002, voters elected him to Congress from Utah’s First Congressional District, which crowns the top of the state, running from the deserts by the Nevada border, east to the energy-rich Uinta Basin next to Colorado. But the district also includes more urban Ogden and even part of liberal Park City. Utah’s 1st District was the 14th most Republican district out of the nation’s 435 congressional districts, according to the 2017 Cook Political Report Partisan Voter Index. Its voters keep returning Bishop to Washington: the seven-term congressman has never won an election with less than 61 percent of the vote. 

“It’s not that we’re anti-government, it’s that we’re local government, and we want the control to be as local as possible,” says Thomas Rust, chair of the Box Elder County Republicans, and who lives less than a mile from Bishop in Brigham City. “We love Utah, we don’t want to just destroy it for money’s sake. We just want to control how it’s managed, what it’s used for.”

During his first several years in Congress, Bishop’s career was not particularly notable. He assumed a higher profile after in 2015, however, after his GOP colleagues voted him chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources upon the retirement of Doc Hastings (R-Washington). Especially for those who live in the West, the committee’s work “touches almost everybody at almost every aspect of your life,” says Alan Rowsome of the Wilderness Society.

The chairman’s seat is a particularly powerful post from which to guide policy about public lands. Every bill in the House of Representatives must pass through a committee such as Bishop’s before it can reach the floor for a vote by all members. The party in power seats more members on the committee and also controls the chairman’s gavel. As chairman, Bishop controls the agenda and can decide which bills get a hearing and which don’t. If a bill is introduced that Bishop doesn’t favor, he can bottle it up and ensure that it never sees the light of day. While the House’s GOP leadership ultimately decides which bills get a full vote of Congress, Bishop is a significant gatekeeper. 

The U.S. government owns and manages nearly half of the American West for the public, and Bishop firmly believes that Uncle Sam is a terrible landlord. “I am an adherent to the concept of federalism,” Bishop told Outside. “Federalism implies a balance of power. But the whole purpose is to protect people”—particularly from an overreaching executive branch that isn’t responsive enough to citizens, he says. To Bishop, there is no better example of this abuse than how presidents have wielded the Antiquities Act, the 1906 law that lets presidents declare buildings, landmarks, and places “of historic or scientific interest” on federal lands to be monuments, without the say of Congress or the public. “If anyone here likes the Antiquities Act the way it is written—die,” he said to the laughter of members of the Western State Land Commissioners Association in 2015. “I need stupidity out of the gene pool. It is the most evil act ever invented.”  

At least twice over the last several years he has introduced legislation that would gut the act. Bishop has encouraged Zinke and the Donald J. Trump administration to shrink or rescind recent monument designations, including lobbying the administration to remove commercial fishing restrictions in the Pacific Ocean’s 583,000-square-mile Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. On Monday, the Administration seemed to act on Bishop’s calls, when Zinke recommended to the president in an interim report that the Bears Ears monument be significantly reduced in size

Bishop told Outside he is not against conservation. One of the two accomplishments he’s most proud of in Congress was the creation of 100,000-acre Cedar Mountain Wilderness, west of Salt Lake City, in 2006 to stop the creation of a nuclear waste storage facility. This was wilderness done right, he said—for a purpose, in collaboration with every property owner. 

Asked to expand on his philosophy toward federal lands, though, Bishop offered a startling argument for a congressman: he claimed that federal land in western states such as Utah may not even belong to the federal government, and thus the broader American public, at all. The former history teacher cited a variety of reasons based on esoteric points of American history and how the states entered the union. “(T)here is both a constitutional and a statutory reason on why the federal lands are actually yes, the states’ lands,” he concluded. Bishop’s assertions have been echoed by fringe movements, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, from the 1970s Sagebrush Rebellion to those who side with Nevada’s scofflaw Bundy family and those who took over Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. 

“Most legal scholars and public policy folks disagree with this assertion,” John Freemuth, a scholar of public land law of the West, told Outside after reviewing a transcript of Bishop’s full comments. In an email, Freemuth found problems with each of Bishop’s arguments. “What Congressman Bishop has ignored here is that each state, when it entered the Union, placed into the state constitution a Disclaimer clause” in which it forever relinquishes claim to “‘all right and title to the unappropriated public lands’” within its borders, he wrote.

Bishop argues that giving states control of the lands within their borders is ultimately an issue of fairness. Utah, for instance, is nearly two-thirds federal lands. Lack of private property means little property tax to fund education. What’s more, the federal system that compensates such states for the absence of taxable private property is woefully underfunded, Bishop and even some of his critics agree. Giving a state more control of lands within its borders could mean more uses allowed on them—from recreation to energy extraction—and thus more tax revenue, he says. 

To critics, though, handing over the American public’s land to states just doesn’t make environmental sense. “The state of Utah does a terrible job of managing the land it has,” says Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “They sold half of the land they were granted at statehood. They have trashed most of the land they still own.” States neither have the money nor impetus for environmental protection, many critics say. When times grow tight, they argue, the temptation to sell off the land to the private sector is too great. Within the last two years alone, Utah has sold several parcels of state land to the highest bidder.

It is perhaps not coincidental that since Bishop assumed his chairmanship, campaign contributions to him from oil- and gas companies ticked up sharply in the most recent election cycle. While the energy-rich Uinta Basin lies in his district, energy companies that do business across public lands would stand to benefit from the success of his agenda.

Bishop has said he has no interest in despoiling the land, simply allowing locally-managed use of it. But others hear that as code for less regulation, more intensive use, more pollution, and more loss at a time when the natural world is already under the gun. Seen to its end, they say, Bishop’s vision would result in future generations looking out across a very different American landscape.

The popular image of the fight over public lands is environmentalists chained to bulldozers. Most of the decisive action on such issues, however, takes place in tall-ceilinged hearing rooms on Capitol Hill such as the one Bishop presided over one late-April afternoon. He sat in a high-backed chair at the head of an elevated horseshoe of desks, dressed in one of his trademark three-piece suits and nursing a Dr. Pepper, his chief vice. His expression constantly shifted, like weather systems passing over the creased landscape of his face—one minute an amused half-smile, the next minute a let’s-get-it-over-with look of a professor presiding over a squabbling faculty meeting. Occasionally, there were flashes of the humor he is known for around Capitol Hill, which is frequent and bends toward the sarcastic. It is known to draw blood. “Terror Lake,” he said to Alaska Rep. Don Young, repeating the name of a water body named in a bill Young had proposed. “A lake named after you?” he ribbed his fellow Republican.

The day was the first of a two-day mark-up session, when wording of bills was debated, paragraphs added or struck from them. Every would-be change got a vote. Many bills on the docket were touted as improving the nation’s infrastructure, a buzzword in D.C. since Trump had pledged to fix the nation’s crumbling support systems during the presidential campaign. 

These bills would “protect and improve our nation’s water and power infrastructure, spur job creation, and increase economic growth,” Bishop said in his opening statement. At first glance, the bills seemed banal-sounding, harmless. One bill, for instance, would exempt water transfers between Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana from the Lacey Act, a conservation law that makes it illegal to import, export or acquire fish, wildlife or plants that are transported in in interstate or foreign commerce.

“What keeps me up at night are backdoor provisions that would undermine public lands.”

Look closer, though, and several of the bills would slyly reduce environmental regulations, claimed Arizona Representative Raúl Grijalva, the ranking Democrat on the committee. That bill proposing a Lacey Act exemption would mean those states—in the service of quenching their thirst—would let them legally pass invasive species from one lake or waterway to another, critics say. Another bill would make the Bureau of Reclamation the “one-stop-shop” for permitting of new and expanding water projects, as Bishop put it. According to Grijalva, it would also waive requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act and dramatically limit public input. NEPA is considered a bedrock environmental law and has been called the ‘look before you leap’ provision that projects must undergo. (Bishop has been no fan of the act.) Yet another, in the name of reducing wildfires, would allow states and localities to dictate how federal lands are managed, Grijalva alleged. 

“I think we are seeing a thousand cuts, in a bunch of areas” under Bishop’s leadership, and emboldened by a receptive president just down the Mall, Grijalva told Outside.

The next day during the ongoing session, Representative Jared Huffman of northern California, a Democrat, proposed an amendment to a bill. Others argued against it. Bishop called for a voice vote—with ayes or nayes. It was close. The amendment went to a roll-call vote. Huffman’s amendment lost—as did just about all other Democrat-proposed changes to the bills, on near-party-line votes. 

“What we’re seeing is a more sophisticated approach” to environmental deregulation, said Bobby McEnaney, senior lands analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council. McEnaney added, “What keeps me up at night are backdoor provisions that would undermine public lands.” 

Indeed, as his January rules change showed, Bishop has been creative at times in trying to achieve his ends. Sometimes he has attached riders to must-pass bills (a tool that has been employed by both sides in the environmental debate over the decades). One such example occurred in 2016: as Congress was trying to alleviate the economic crisis in Puerto Rico, Bishop attempted to attach a provision that would have transferred 3,100 acres of the 17,000-acre Vieques National Wildlife Refuge to Puerto Rico’s government. In 2015 he tried to derail the renewal of the law authorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which has raised more than $3 billion for recreation projects in every congressional district in the country, by taxing offshore oil and gas drilling; Bishop claims the program is “sleazy” and a “slush fund” to reward environmental groups. He has been a chief critic in Congress of the Endangered Species Act, calling it ineffective and overly burdensome and urging to “replace and replace” the law. 

His efforts have often have fallen short. Bishop’s Puerto Rico provision was stripped, to gain enough support to pass the already-controversial bill. On LWCF, Republicans rolled Bishop and renewed the authorizing law for three years. “He’s persistent, but incredibly ineffective,” said Raúl Garcia, legislative counsel with Earthjustice.

This has not deterred him. “People are telling me, ‘No you can’t do that,’ and I’m not accepting that,” Bishop told Outside. “I’m basically obnoxious and stubborn.’’ He is preparing to fight to retool LWCF again in 2018.

Those who sell Bishop short might do so at their peril, however. Bishop scored a victory on June 8, when Zinke announced that he will review a massive collaborative deal, years in the making, that is designed to keep the imperiled greater-sage grouse off the endangered-species list. Sage-grouse once blotted out the skies of the inland West’s “sagebrush sea.” Now only a few hundred thousand remain, across 11 states, squeezed by energy development and wildfire. Zinke’s review is a nod to folks like Bishop, who says the federal government’s collaboration trampled on states' rights. In January, Bishop had re-introduced a bill that would hand many decisions about permitting of activities related to the birds’ recovery, such as oil and gas drilling and recreation, to states—even on federal lands there.

Then there’s President Trump’s 2018 budget, which reads like Bishop’s Christmas list, containing most everything the congressman has pressed for regarding public lands. Released in late May, the budget calls for more energy production, including in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; it drastically reduces money for new parkland acquisition; it starves the federal land-management agencies; and it shrinks the management reach by those agencies, including by cutting their staffing. While Trump’s budget is bound to change significantly in the coming months, the message is clear: Bishop’s views are in ascendance.

It’s unclear how much success Bishop will have pushing his agenda through Congress, even with political winds at his back. Trump and Secretary of Interior Zinke seem receptive to many of his committee’s efforts. House Republican leadership, however, already has its hands full—with the budget, immigration, and the president’s Russia troubles. GOP leaders may be less inclined to see Bishop’s priorities as its priorities, say Capitol Hill staffers of several environmental groups.

Consider his interest in scrapping and rewriting the Endangered Species Act. “I thought that they would be more focused, more organized, more effective, more disciplined,” Patrick Parenteau, professor of law at Vermont Law School and an expert on the act, said of its opponents. But Republicans so far have proven to be “the gang that couldn’t shoot straight,” Parenteau said. That could change. If lawmakers truly want to gut the law, “they certainly have the muscle to do it,” he said. It would be costly, and bloody, however. The act is popular with the public, Parenteau said, and many Democrats consider the act “a line in the sand.” Though the Endangered Species Act probably faces the biggest threat in its history, Parenteau said, due to GOP antipathy on Capitol Hill toward the law, and the numbers to do something about it—he pegged the chances of it being wholesale repealed and replaced at 20 percent. 

As for Bishop, and how much longer he wants to keep up the fight, he told Outside he wouldn’t stay much longer in the House. He has said elsewhere he isn’t interested in running for the Senate seat of 88-year-old Orrin Hatch. “I have one more term after this that I can be chairman, and then I tell people that’s going to be it,” he said. Republicans limit their chairmanship terms to six years, which means if all swings his way—if he’s re-elected to Congress, and if the body stays GOP-controlled—Bishop could hold his chairman’s seat until 2020. He is fond of saying that he wants to depart the office with less power than when he arrived. “That’s federalism,” he said. 

But for now, it would be unwise to underestimate him, said Congressman Grijalva, who has sat beside Bishop for 14 years. “Because his power right now is the ability to effectuate some of these things.”

It’s unlikely that the former actor will simply step quietly into the wings, but rather will keep pushing his agenda, with his trademark conviction, until the curtain falls.

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