Grand County’s political landscape may have shifted in the Nov. 4 election, but residents shouldn’t expect sweeping changes to any final public lands initiative recommendations that the county council submits to Congress.
Two of the county council’s incoming members who will take office next January said it’s unlikely that they’ll veer far away from current proposals to balance recreation, conservation and development on public lands across Grand County.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a big swing,” Grand County Councilman-elect Chris Baird said during a Nov. 21 council workshop on Rep. Rob Bishop’s public lands initiative.
Grand County Councilwoman-elect Jaylyn Hawks said she’s not opposed to looking at the council’s recommendations in greater detail, and added that the new council may need to make small adjustments to them.
However, she said she believes that council members and others with a stake in public lands issues have already gone through a very thorough process on the public lands initiative.
“My impression was that a ton of work has been done by a good variety of stakeholders,” Hawks said Nov. 25.
As things currently stand, Grand County Council chairman Lynn Jackson believes that a majority of council members support a proposal that calls on Congress to designate about 390,000 acres of wilderness in the county.
A working group led by outgoing Grand County Councilman Gene Ciarus has also reached consensus on a proposed recommendation to create 225,000 acres of specially-managed recreation areas in the county. At the same time, the working group firmed up a proposal to designate more than 125,000 acres of protected landscapes along the Green, Colorado and Dolores rivers.
In the weeks to come, Baird would like to see the council work directly with wilderness advocates on wilderness-related issues, and he’s hopeful that the incoming council members will have a say in the county’s final recommendations.
However, Baird indicated that he won’t ask other council members to scrap the work they’ve done to date.
“I’m not going to try to restart the whole thing or throw anything away,” he said.
Those words probably came as a relief to representatives from congressional offices who were in the council’s chambers.
Bishop, R-Utah, initially hoped to introduce a public lands bill in Congress last spring. But that date was pushed back as officials and stakeholders in a seven-county region worked to hammer out their respective proposals.
As 2014 draws to a close, however, Grand County and its neighbors have only so much time to act before Utah’s congressional delegation moves forward with Bishop’s bill, according to Utah Public Lands Policy Coordinator Kathleen Clarke.
“The train will be leaving the station,” Clarke said Nov. 21.
Wade Garrett, a regional representative from Rep. Jason Chaffetz’s office, encouraged the county council to submit some concrete proposals to Utah’s delegation as soon as possible.
“We’re kind of at the point that if Grand County’s going to be part of this, we’ve got to see something,” Garrett said.
Ironically, Bishop may actually be in a better position next year to guide the broader eastern Utah lands bill through the U.S. House of Representatives, despite the delays to date.
On Nov. 18, U.S. House Speaker John Boehner announced that Bishop will chair the House Natural Resources Committee when the 114th Congress convenes in January 2015. The committee will review any public lands bill before the legislation moves on to the broader U.S. House.
Garrett noted that there will be other opportunities to make adjustments to the county’s proposals as the bill moves through Congress. Likewise, Jackson reiterated that the broader eastern Utah bill will be subject to revisions at the national level.
“This isn’t going to be the final say,” Jackson said.
At some point in the near future, the county council plans to hold a public forum on the county’s recommendations, and it may lead to additional proposals, or changes to the existing ones.
Baird, who is also the executive director of the Canyonlands Watershed Council, wants council members to consider protections for the La Sal Mountains watershed.
Three of the council’s seven current members — including Jackson, vice chair Elizabeth Tubbs and Councilman Ken Ballantyne — previously voiced support for the idea, and Baird doesn’t believe it should be a source of controversy.
“Wilderness would be contentious, but watershed protection doesn’t have to be contentious,” he said.
Ballantyne, for one, is still willing to have that discussion: He said he believes the council’s previous consideration of watershed protections was sidetracked by other issues.
“I still think it’s an open discussion,” Ballantyne said.
The council must also decide whether it wants to push forward with a recommendation to create a potentially controversial “enhanced transportation corridor” that would connect Grand and Uintah counties via Hay or East canyons in the Book Cliffs.
Another one of the most contentious recommendations to date is unlikely to survive a vote by the new council.
A three-member council study committee initially came up with a proposal that would prohibit presidents from using their powers under the federal Antiquities Act to declare new national monuments in Grand County. The proposal came in response to environmentalists’ calls for the creation of a Greater Canyonlands National Monument in Grand, San Juan and other neighboring counties in southeastern Utah.
Jackson said he believes that calls for executive action undercut local efforts to resolve long-running public lands disputes, noting that current proposals would extend protections to a majority of public lands in Grand County.
“This is half of our county or more in some special management designation,” Jackson said.
Although Jackson served on that study committee, he said he will advise the full council to vote against any language that would do away with those powers altogether. Instead, he will ask council members to approve a recommendation that would place limitations on the geographic size of national monuments that any one president could designate in Grand County over a specific time frame.
At the end of the day, Jackson said he’s hopeful that the council won’t include any “deal-killing” proposals in any recommendations it sends on to Congress.
If the bill is going to succeed, he said, stakeholders need to find common ground on the issues.
“We can make it work if people are willing to compromise a little bit,” he said.
Council members-elect see room for some revisions to Bishop initiative
I’m not going to try to restart the whole thing or throw anything away.