The Grand County Council created a three-person study committee to establish guidelines regarding federally managed properties at their Tuesday, Oct. 15 meeting.
Councilmen Rory Paxman, Jim Nyland and Lynn Jackson were appointed to that committee, which will meet with county department heads as necessary to develop a county contingency plan for federal land closures.
The action is a response to the recent partial federal government shutdown, which closed Arches and Canyonlands national parks, as well as Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service campgrounds and permitting.
Grand County discussed options to open and operate federal lands at a special county council meeting held Tuesday, Oct. 8. Council chair Gene Ciarus signed a proclamation approved by the council that stated over 75 percent of the land within Grand County is managed by the federal government. It also stated that 2.5 million visitors travel to Moab to enjoy federally managed lands and that 76 percent of the county’s economy is dependent upon tourism.
The proclamation also stated that Grand County estimated over $2.6 million in lost revenue between Oct. 1 and Oct. 8 in commercial business alone, and the estimated loss in revenue of $380,000 per day each additional day during the shutdown.
Marian DeLay, the director of the Grand County Travel Council said that more than 90,000 visitors go to Arches National Park in October alone.
The county interest to manage the federal lands during the federal closure ended when Gov. Gary Herbert began negotiations with Sally Jewell, the secretary of the Department of the Interior (DOI). Jewell said that the DOI would accept state money to operate the national parks, but would not surrender control of national parks to the states.
Arches and Canyonlands national parks were re-opened Saturday, Oct. 12 after Gov. Gary Herbert wired more than $1.6 million dollars from Utah taxpayers to the Department of the Interior to open the national parks for 10 days. BLM and the forest service campgrounds and permitting offices remained closed until Thursday, Oct. 17.
“When there was consideration for counties to overtake operations of the parks, there were questions put forth from the governor’s office of what operations the county could facilitate,” said council chair Gene Ciarus. “I realize the parks are open, but I think it is important to know what would we have to do to manage those facilities.”
Ciarus said that understanding what services would need to be provided was key.
“Then we can intelligently put costs of doing it,” Ciarus said. “We need to do this process for both the national parks and the BLM campgrounds.”
Councilman Ken Ballantyne expressed support for the committee.
“It is a wise thing to do to have a game plan should this situation repeat itself,” he said.
Jackson agreed with Ballantyne.
“This is more complex than getting keys and opening gates,” Jackson said.
He said that it would involve county clerk Dianna Carroll, as large sums of money would be involved for park entrance and campground fees.
“There is a huge component in the financial arena,” he said. “Every car that goes through that gate pays money. Every penny needs to be accounted for.”
As an aside he continued, “The state paid the federal government 1.7 million to open the park with no guarantee to be reimbursed for that money. We should have said, ‘we’ll take the entrance fees.’”
Ciarus said that he wanted a three-person committee to begin start the process, then include the assistance of department heads, such as the county clerk or the sheriff’s office as needed.
“If it takes months, that’s fine and dandy. There is no emergency now. You can bring who you want into it. It is your realm of responsibility. There is no deadline on it,” he said. “Let’s create a fairly comprehensive plan that we can dust off every few years.”
Jackson expressed the hope that the county would never have to use the plan, “but what is happening in Washington is getting worse and worse every year.”
Ciarus talked about the rush of considering operating the federally managed lands
“That was really exciting for all the counties to consider doing it without procedures to do it,” Ciarus said.
Grand County has been managing BLM land within the Sand Flats Recreation Area for 17 years.
Jackson said that there would have been legal issues had the counties taken over the federally managed public lands.
“I think we would have been sued by the federal government. They would have pursued a restraining order,” Jackson said.