After two and a half years of work on an eastern Utah public lands initiative, the state’s congressional delegation is eager to introduce a draft version of its long-awaited proposal.
But Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, and others might have to wait a little longer before Grand County officials send off their final recommendations for long-term management of federal lands within the county’s borders.
Now that a new Grand County Council is in place, the seven-member body is hoping to wrap things up with a March 31 vote on its lands initiative recommendations. In the meantime, the council is giving local stakeholders another chance to weigh in on the ideas they’d like the county to adopt.
Grand County Council chair Elizabeth Tubbs suggested that the council could hold straw polls on various recommendations before it takes a formal vote on them, in order to accommodate the delegation’s accelerated timeline.
“I appreciate what an imposition this is on everybody,” Tubbs said Feb. 17. “(But the public lands initiative is) a really rare opportunity, I think, for the county to put something forward, whether it goes anywhere or not.”
Local residents will have a chance to catch up on recent developments on March 17, when the council plans to hold a public hearing on the initiative. In the meantime, council members continue to hear from stakeholder groups who represent voices across the spectrum.
On Feb. 16, representatives from the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) and Grand Canyon Trust presented their ideas about the best ways to balance conservation, recreation and development. At the same time, council members heard from potash development interests and Moab Friends-For-Wheelin’, which represents off-road vehicle riders.
Grand Canyon Trust Utah Wildlands Program Director Tim Peterson urged the council to support greater protections of the La Sal Mountains watershed, which serves as the sole-source aquifer for both Moab and Castle Valley.
A majority of the previous council’s members rejected that idea, as well as proposals to formally designate wilderness in the La Sals. But Peterson asked the new council to consider both ideas.
“Utah actually has less wilderness than any Western state – even less than Florida,” Peterson said.
He assured audience members that the designation would not affect many traditional uses in the La Sals. Livestock grazing, for instance, is expressly allowed under the federal Wilderness Act of 1964, he said.
If Congress ultimately adopted his group’s recommendations, the U.S. Forest Service’s travel management plan for the La Sals would remain in place. According to Peterson, that means that efforts to carve out more wilderness would not lead to the closure of roads or off-road vehicle trails.
The issue of off-highway vehicle or all-terrain vehicle access is one that’s near and dear to Moab Friends-For-Wheelin’ member Melissa Fischer.
The recent Moab transplant said her group respects the fact that local national parks offer opportunities for off-road vehicle users, noting that her very first Jeep trip took her through Canyonlands.
“We do have a great opportunity to continue that tradition of having motorized recreation with minimal impacts,” she said.
Fischer wants the county to recommend legislative language that keeps existing trails open, noting that one of the previous council’s public lands initiative alternatives asks Congress to close 50 miles of OHV routes on both sides of the Dolores River. Her group also wants to ensure that motorized access remains in areas that could potentially receive special land management designations, such as National Conservation Area status.
SUWA Executive Director Scott Groene said his group is prepared to compromise with other stakeholders, which could obviate the threat – or promise – of a new national monument in Grand County.
If the compromise that SUWA supports is signed into law, Groene said that Grand County would also gain ownership of more than 90 percent of the roads it claims under an 1866 law.
SUWA has been at the forefront of legal skirmishes involving similar claims around the state. But Groene suggested that the public lands initiative model could solve decades-old conflicts surrounding management of Utah’s federally managed lands.
For guidance, Grand County residents and officials could look to Daggett County, where the county commission and other stakeholders have already agreed on public lands initiative recommendations to Utah’s congressional delegation.
By taking a similar approach, Groene said, Grand County could avoid potentially costly, divisive and long-term legal battles over public lands issues.
Speaking on behalf of the National Parks Conservation Association, former Arches and Canyonlands Superintendent Walt Dabney outlined the group’s vision for an expanded Arches National Park.
Under that vision, three key areas within the park’s current viewshed would be protected from future development. They span from Salt Valley along the park’s northwestern boundary to the Lost Springs Canyon area toward the northeastern end.
Perhaps most notably, the group’s proposal would add 9,600 acres in the Dry Mesa area.
According to Dabney, the area was formally protected up until the early 1970s, when Arches National Monument became Arches National Park.
For reasons that aren’t clear to Dabney, however, those protections were removed at the time that former President Richard Nixon signed into law the bill that created the park.
The repercussions of that change were felt in 2008, when multiple energy development leases went out to bid before they were withdrawn.
While those bids were ultimately withdrawn, Dabney argued that mineral development within sight of Delicate Arch could cause irreparable harm to the area. Instead of mining the area’s mineral resources over the short term, he suggested that the community can “mine” Dry Mesa for its scenic and recreational values.
“You can mine it forever if you don’t screw it up,” Dabney said.
National parks are an “absolute” economic generator wherever they are, he said. By his estimates, Arches National Park generates somewhere around $143 million in economic activity across the state.
“In the Moab area, it is absolutely critical to our economic well-being,” he said.
Sixth-generation county resident Curtis Wells said the same thing about a scenic and resource-rich area sandwiched between the Green River and U.S. Highway 191 south of Interstate 70.
However, he wants to ensure that Congress protects the concept of multiple use management as much as possible, in order to promote future opportunities for potash mining operations in the area.
In his eyes, potash is one of the mining industry’s safest commodities: He said that farmers will need more and more potash-based fertilizer as the world’s population continues to grow.
A new potash mine in the area could create up to 250 annual jobs over the long term, and it could operate for 200 to 300 years at three times the rate of Intrepid Potash’s current operations, he said.
If the project ever came to fruition, Wells said it would become the county’s number one tax revenue contributor. Capital expenditures on the project could also range from $100 million to $500 million, according to Wells.
“This is a total game-changer for our economy; this is the balance that we should strive for,” he said.
To see the most recent workshop presentations to the county council, go to: grandcountyutah.net/AgendaCenter/County-Council-5. Additional information about the county’s public lands initiative process is available at grandcountyutah.net/777/Public-Lands-Bill-Process.
Final vote on recommendations set for March 31
Utah actually has less wilderness than any Western state – even less than Florida.
We do have a great opportunity to continue that tradition of having motorized recreation with minimal impacts.