Marc Thomas, a member of Sierra Club's Utah Chapter executive committee, presented a letter at the Grand County Council's meeting Tuesday, Dec. 17, requesting openness regrading the county's proposal to Congressman Rob Bishop for the public lands bill. [Photo by Pippa Thomas / Moab Sun News]

In a letter presented to the Grand County Council on Tuesday, Dec. 17, local residents expressed concern about the council’s work on the Public Land Initiative, a plan for public lands legislation spearheaded by Utah Congressman Rob Bishop.

Rep. Bishop is working with a variety of public land stakeholders in an attempt to resolve public lands conflicts within five eastern Utah counties: Grand, San Juan, Uintah, Carbon and Wayne.

The council established a three-member study group at their Tuesday, Nov. 19 meeting to develop recommendations for long-term public land designations in Grand County. Their intent is to prepare a number of maps illustrating a range of alternatives for the county varying from minimally to highly restrictive land use designations.

In February, the county council will vote on a map of recommended designations to send to Rep. Bishop for consideration in his proposal to congress.

The letter, signed by almost 40 local residents, asked for an open process.

“Openness and careful scrutiny of all alternatives will garner the strongest public support, because they will insure that all voices and ideas are heard,” stated the letter to the council. “It ought to be the result of an open-minded, balanced procedure, one that gives it the stamp of legitimacy while at the same time avoiding any appearance of cronyism or favoritism.”

The Grand County Council released a statement of their commitment to public participation in developing land use recommendations in a press release dated Dec. 13. Council chair Gene Ciarus outlined the council’s process for collecting input before voting on a final recommendation to send to Bishop.

At the Tuesday, Dec. 17 county council meeting, Marc Thomas, a member of the Sierra Club’s Utah Chapter executive committee, presented the council with the letter that was signed by local residents that included other members of the Glenn Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club. The letter outlines the procedures for public participation they would like the committee to use.

“We’re asking that the committee be more transparent and make their meetings open to the public,” Thomas said at the council meeting.

Earlier in the month a local resident, Bill Love, lodged a complaint that Councilman Lynn Jackson has a conflict of interest due to consulting work he has done for a potash company. On Dec. 2, county attorney Andrew Fitzgerald had said his office was looking into whether there was any merit the complaint.

The letter was drafted before the council press release had been made public. Since then, Thomas has acknowledged that the press release addresses many of the issues they raised in their letter.

“I think the press release is a move in the right direction. I still have some concern that the time frame is relatively compressed,” Thomas said.

Though the public first became involved with the initiative in August during an open house with Rep. Bishop and Rep. Jason Chavetz, the council did not act until late November.

Jackson said that they weren’t clear on the process.

“We were under the impression that we would receive something in some form of a draft from Congressman Bishop’s office. And then we would make a formal type of response like we’re doing now,” Jackson said.

It wasn’t until Jackson saw Bishop discussing his process for the bill during a television interview that the study group decided they’d better move forward with developing formal input so as to not miss the opportunity

“We’re all treading new ground here. This is such a new concept, this whole process of letting stakeholders work together and drive it. And there’s no playbook to follow,” Jackson said.

With the publication of the press release, the subcommittee seems to have worked out its course of action.

“As far as I’m concerned our process is as transparent as it gets,” Jackson said. “There will be a written comment period. There will be a public meeting showing the alternatives and we’ll get more input. The council meeting where we finally vote will be open to the public so they’ll see the deliberative process we’ll go through in deciding what we send to Congressman Bishop.”

The study group, which has met only once since their inception, has not yet begun developing recommendations.

“Right now, they are trying to gather all of the information that is out there, that Congressman Bishop has gathered through all of the public meetings and letters written,” Ciarus said.

The county council is also inviting county residents to submit written comments by letter—no e-mail comments will be accepted—through Jan. 17.

After the January deadline, the study group will get down to the technical work, assembling a range of maps based on the input from the public and key land-use stake holders in Grand County. Their intention is to produce a variety of maps that show the many alternatives that have been suggested for land designation.

Despite the request that the entire process be open to the public, most of the study-group’s work meetings will be closed.

“If it was a four-member committee, they’d all have to be public meetings, but this is a three-member committee because these are work sessions for the study group to go through the process. Once all of the information is assembled, they’ll start having their public meetings down at the Grand Center,” Ciarus said.

The council study group will present these maps to the public at an open meeting in February and again solicit public input before finalizing the maps for a council vote.

Stakeholder representatives who have long been involved with this public land initiative hope this process encourages substantive input about specific issues.

“If we can use technology to have a map focused discussion, the discussion becomes about who’s going to do what, where on the landscape as opposed to arguing competing philosophies,” said Ashley Korenblat, representative of the Outdoor Industry Association for the land use bill negotiations. “What comes out of layering up the maps is that you end up with pretty big zones of agreement.”

“We’ll come up with a balanced approach that makes the most sense to the most people in Grand County,” Jackson said.

Council members also point out that their suggestions are only suggestions.

“One thing people need to remember is that we don’t have the authority as a county to change designations on public lands,” Jackson said.

However, the process of this particular land use initiative has been recognized from the beginning for its collaborative and open approach.

“There are so many stakeholders working together and looking for solutions that it actually appears that this thing is going to work,” Jackson said.

Fall 2014 is currently the target for completing a proposal for presentation to congress.