n what has in recent months seemed to be an unbridgeable divide, there are signs of growing consensus between the Grand County Council and representatives from the recreation industry in developing a land-use recommendation for Congressman Rob Bishop’s (R-Utah) Utah Public Lands Initiative. Questions still remain over conflicts between oil and gas development, recreation and wilderness, the Antiquities Act, and the proposed Book Cliffs highway.
At a workshop on Tuesday, July 15, council chairman Lynn Jackson and council members Elizabeth Tubbs, Gene Ciarus, Rory Paxman and Ken Ballantyne sat around a table with representatives from the recreation community to go over a proposed plan for designating special recreation management areas that would seek to avoid conflict between recreation and oil and gas development.
The Grand County Council has been working on the land-use maps as part of a locally driven process to determine how federal lands might best be managed. Bishop had asked that five eastern Utah counties submit their recommendations so that he can present a bill before the U.S. House of Representatives.
“I think we are making progress, but we still have work to do,” Jackson said. “These are very complex issues and the extra time we’re taking to get into details is proving to be valuable.”
The workshop was also attended by Wade Garrett from Congressman Jason Chaffetz’ (R-Utah) office, as well as Kathleen Clarke, director of the Utah Public Lands Policy Coordination Office.
Clarke opened the meeting by thanking the council for its work and saying that Governor Gary Herbert, R-Utah, is behind their efforts.
“We are anxious to see the state and counties take a bolder role in identifying areas for conservation and for multiple use,” she said.
Clarke spoke of the “looming danger” of a national monument and encouraged the council to work with all of the interested stakeholders.
“We absolutely need the support of the environmental community,” she said.
The Bishop Public Lands Initiative process is meant to develop consensus and support among stakeholders to develop public-land-management policies through collaboration and compromise.
During the workshop, Jackson proposed that the council move forward on a recommendation for those areas where a consensus had been reached between council members and representatives from the recreation industry.
“There are a lot of people out there who would like to see a national monument,” he said. “If we have a National Recreation Area (NRA), but it’s still business as usual, people are going to be unhappy. We can move forward on a portion of this lands bill that we are all in agreement on.”
Ciarus presented maps outlining proposed recreation management areas that sought to mitigate impact on recreational resources from oil and gas development. The maps were developed with input from Jason Keith and Ashley Korenblat from Public Lands Solutions, as well as local businesses.
A preliminary agreement was reached on the eastern portion of a proposed “Gateway” special management area where oil and gas development would not be permitted. This area includes lands east of U.S. Highway 191 to the boundary of Arches National Park, and south from the Klondike Bluffs area through the Gold Bar Rim, Kane Creek, and Amasa Back to the county line.
There are no existing oil and gas leases in this area and development potential is thought to be very low. It is, however, home to many of Moab’s popular mountain bike trails, such as the Bar M loops and Klonzo trails, as well as the popular Jeep trails Long Canyon, Poison Spider Mesa and Cliff Hanger.
A similar proposal was made and general consensus given for a Porcupine Rim – Richardson Amphitheater management area.
“I’m thrilled to hear that Grand County is seriously considering not to allow drilling for oil and gas east of Highway 191 on public lands,” said Maggie Wilson, owner of Magpie Adventures.
Wilson said that she has been working and recreating on public lands in southern Utah for over 20 years, with people from all over the world, and that the most common comments people make are about how beautiful the place is, and how amazed they are not to see any “buildings or signs of people.”
There is less agreement on how to manage the western portion of the “Gateway” special management area, which includes the Monitor and Merrimack Buttes area, and a portion of Big Flat, which contains the Gemini Bridges trails, and the road to Mineral Bottom.
Most of Big Flat is currently leased and no decision can affect valid existing leases. Recreation proponents would like to see a stipulation made where undeveloped leases cannot be renewed once they expire, as well as have limits placed in areas that aren’t currently leased such as along the road to Mineral Bottom.
“Almost all of the Big Flat area is currently leased and those existing leases are likely to provide $1-5 million a year in mineral lease royalties to Grand County over the next 50 years,” former county council member Kimberly Schappert said. “The question is how can we develop those leases without destroying the recreation economy that brings in $200-300 million a year in business revenues. And since these leases are already affecting the visitor experience, is it necessary to lease even more acreage?”
Former county commissioner and long-time Moab resident Ray Tibbetts said that it’s healthy to have an income from oil and gas for Moab.
“It’s so important to have a little money for infrastructure,” Tibbetts said. “But in a way, I hate to see them drill up there. It’s my playground, too.”
Jackson acknowledged that this area, as well as land north to Ten Mile Wash, and west to the rim of Labyrinth Canyon was a “problem area,” and he suggested forming a subcommittee to work on a proposal for how to manage it.
“The curve ball is the MLP (BLM Mineral Leasing Plan),” he said. “Maybe this working group could also come up with another alternative to the BLM MLP when we deal with this problem area.”
The council also discussed making permanent, the Three Rivers Withdrawal (TRW) as long as there weren’t any requirements imposed for a federal water reserve.
The TRW was a designation made in 2001 by then-Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton, which protected the river canyons of the Green, Colorado, and Dolores Rivers from hard rock mining for 20 years. In 2008, the BLM, to be consistent with its resource management plan (RMP), also placed a No Surface Occupancy (NSO) stipulation on oil and gas development within the canyons.
“I think we need to do something with that Three Rivers Withdrawal,” Ciarus said. “I’d like to see it put into recreation, not wilderness, because then it doesn’t get any use at all.”
On the topic of wilderness, Jackson “admonished” the council to up its recommendation from the 1999 Grand County plan of just under 200,000 acres to at least include the BLM’s Wilderness Study Area (WSA) inventory of around 360,000 acres.
Council members present agreed to the proposal, and Tubbs said she would support even more acreage.
Neal Clark, staff attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), said his organization would be happy to review the county’s proposal when it is final.
“America’s Redrock Wilderness Act would protect about 850,000 acres of BLM land in Grand County,” Clark said. “But we recognize every interest will need to make concessions if there is to be an agreement.”
On the Antiquities Act – which U.S. Presidents have used to create four of Utah’s five national parks – Jackson suggested retaining it, but making stipulations to it to avoid having a large national monument declared.
Tubbs said that she felt, as she always had, that a decision on the Antiquities Act was too large for a seven-person council to make, and that it should go to the voters.
Jackson also asked if they should drop the Sego Canyon road corridor and focus solely on the feasibility of Hay Canyon.
“I couldn’t say let’s drop Sego Canyon,” Ciarus said. “These roads through the wilderness, we need to widen those corridors.”
In the end, most present seemed pleased with the progress.
Sue Bellagamba from the Nature Conservancy said she was impressed that there was a lot of agreement.
“I applaud the hard work by the council and citizens of Grand County who are working on the Public Lands Initiative,” she said. “It seems like Grand County is getting closer to a proposal that will help solve a range of public lands issues.”
Ballantyne echoed the sentiment.
“I like that chunks of this have been agreed upon,” he said. “I still think that reasonable people can come up with solutions.”
“I think we are making progress, but we still have work to do. These are very complex issues and the extra time we’re taking to get into details is proving to be valuable.”
Amid optimism, thorny issues remain for Bishop Public Lands Initiative