Grand County Council members clashed at the July 3 council meeting over a letter sent by council chairman Gene Ciarus to local managers and the state director of the Bureau of Land Management.
The June 26 letter accused the agency of making decisions regarding the Moab area Master Leasing Plan in a closed meeting with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. The letter requested that the BLM pull back on the MLP to allow counties to be fully involved in the process.
Council members did not approve the letter in an open meeting before it was sent.
“This completely disregards all aspects of the council’s policies and procedures,” Councilman Chris Baird told Chairman Gene Ciarus during the July 3 meeting. “This is a highly political issue, divisively political, and you took it upon yourself to send this letter.”
Baird pointed out that the BLM has been a partner in developing the county’s economy.
“This county has worked better with the BLM than any other,” Baird said. “Recreational resources of this county and state have been lauded as some of the greatest in the country. It is a dig at the only viable relationship between the county and federal government that provides a robust and viable economy.”
Council Co-chairwoman Audrey Graham proposed removing the ratification of the letter from the consent agenda. Her proposal failed in a council vote.
She then presented a letter to amend the accusations. During discussion of her letter, some council members said it would be more appropriate to rescind, rather than amend accusations.
The council voted 5 to 2 to rescind the accusations made in Ciarus’ letter. Ciarus and Councilman Jim Nyland voted against rescinding the original letter.
In an interview after the council meeting, Ciarus said that Juan Palma, BLM Utah state director, met with SUWA in a closed meeting to settle the SUWA v. Lewis case, in which SUWA is challenging three BLM Resource Management Plans. Ciarus said that the BLM’s MLP map for the Moab area is almost an exact overlay of the SUWA Red Rock Wilderness Act map.
“I think that decision was made in that meeting,” Ciarus said. “I want to know what was said in that meeting. I just want the truth.”
Mark Ward, an attorney for the Utah Association of Counties, wrote the letter sent to the BLM officials for Ciarus. Ward sent a July 6 e-mail to Grand County council members to clarify the origin of the allegations. Ward attended a meeting with Palma and commissioners from Uintah and Duchesne Counties to discuss the MLP process approximately a year and a half to two years ago in Vernal, he said.
Ward wrote that he and county commissioners heard Palma say that the MLPs were a result of closed-door negotiations between the BLM and environmentalist/wilderness organizations regarding the BLM’s 2008 RMPs in the Vernal, Price, Richfield, Moab, Monticello and Kanab field offices.
“The closed-door discussions, Director Palma explained, were held in an effort to try to resolve and settle the lawsuit, and part of what came out of these closed-door meetings was a decision by the BLM to pursue the Master Leasing Program in Utah,” Ward stated in the e-mail.
In May 2010, the BLM implemented leasing reforms to provide the public with increased opportunity for participation and to require a more thorough environmental review and documentation process, said Kaveh Sadeghzadeh, BLM Utah state external affairs chief.
“The development of MLPs, both here in Utah and in other states, is part of this much-larger package of oil and gas leasing reforms,” she said. “The December 2008 oil and gas lease sale was an impetus for those reforms; and the 2008 RMPs were an issue included in litigation associated with the December 2008 sale in Utah.”
The Moab area plan is the largest in the country, encompassing 738,000 acres in Grand and San Juan Counties near Canyonlands National Park.
“I don’t think it mirrors the SUWA Red Rock Act,” said Jeffrey Smith, Moab Field Office manager for the BLM.
The BLM Canyon Country District completed a comprehensive RMP in 2008. Since then, the BLM has determined additional planning and analysis are necessary for considering new leasing of oil, gas and potash, according to a BLM press release announcing the preparation of the Moab area MLP in March.
“We are required to do it,” Smith said.
The MLP is limited in scope and focuses more on air quality in highly used recreational areas or near national parks. He didn’t see how a discussion with SUWA would relate to the MLP.
“It does not look at roads or wilderness areas,” he said.
No new mineral leases will be allowed in the areas under review until the MLP process is completed. A draft should be available next summer. A final plan may be in place the summer of 2014.
“Any existing leases, we’re still leasing,” Smith said. “There is as much activity as there ever has been. Oil and gas development is still occurring at historic rates.”
Smith said no one from his office has attended a closed-door meeting with SUWA. But there may have been a closed-door meeting that included Utah state director Juan Palma regarding the SUWA v. Lewis case, he said.
“If there was any discussion it apparently didn’t work,” Smith said. “They didn’t settle. They’re going to court.”
Smith said he was confused by Ciarus’ letter.
“We have a good relationship with the county and have been able to work together,” Smith said.
He said he has heard the county will request a meeting to discuss the allegations.
“We look forward to meeting with them to see exactly what their concerns are,” he said.