Grand County Council members Mary Mullen McGann, left, and Jaylyn Hawks joined in on a March 2 public lands initiative workshop. The council is expected to finalize its tentative recommendations on March 31. [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]


Piece by piece, the Grand County Council’s public lands initiative recommendations are starting to take shape.

As members of the state’s congressional delegation prepare to introduce much broader eastern Utah lands bills in both houses of Congress, the council is hammering out a proposal to balance future development on federal lands with recreation and conservation.

Over the last two weeks, council members have taken informal straw poll votes ahead of a final vote that is currently scheduled for Tuesday, March 31.

Grand County Council vice chair Chris Baird said he sees a significant upside to the initiative spearheaded by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah. If approved, he said, it could bring long-term certainty to federal land management decisions that currently shift with a change in presidential administrations.

Council member Lynn Jackson, who served as the previous council’s chair, reiterated his calls for a balanced approach to the issue.

“We’ve got to make some trade-offs here,” Jackson said. “We’re working for everybody in the county – not just one side.”

So far, the new council has come up with tentative recommendations for additional wilderness in the Book Cliffs region north of Interstate 70, including the Danish Wash, Mexico Point and Hideout Canyon areas near the Utah-Colorado border.

In one significant reversal, a majority of council members abandoned a previous council study committee proposal that would have asked Congress to set aside land for an “enhanced transportation corridor” through the Book Cliffs.

With that work largely behind them, council members turned their attention this week to three main areas south of Interstate 70 and west of U.S. Highway 191.

To begin with, they reached a broad consensus to support the creation of wilderness along the county’s eastern border. The rugged and remote area spans from the Westwater area south of the interstate to the Beaver Creek drainage at the northern end of the La Sal Mountains.

As they currently envision it, Class B roads in the area, along with existing Moab Jeep Safari routes, would remain open. However, they were deliberately vague about potential designations of other roads in the area, suggesting that they will need more time to conduct a thorough inventory at a later date.

“We want to leave ourselves an opening,” Grand County Council chair Elizabeth Tubbs said.

Baird, for one, indicated that he would not support additional road closures beyond any proposed wilderness area boundaries.

“I’m not inclined to close any roads outside of wilderness,” he said.

Jackson, meanwhile, said the council must be prepared to make those assurances to off-highway vehicle riders.

“The other side ought to get something back, and they ought to know that not every road or trail will be shut down,” he said.

While Jackson supported the Beaver Creek-area wilderness proposal, he parted ways with a majority of council members over a tentative recommendation to create a national conservation area east of Moab.

As Baird envisions it, the area would run from the high peaks of the La Sal Mountains past iconic places like Fisher Towers and Mary Jane Canyon and then down both sides of the Colorado River upstream from Moab. The northwestern edge of the national conservation area would brush up against Arches National Park’s eastern boundary, while the southwestern boundary would run near the eastern edge of Spanish Valley.

Council member Rory Paxman was not present for the discussion of that particular idea, but Tubbs marked him down as a “nay” vote; council member Ken Ballantyne voiced mixed feelings about the proposal.

Jackson suggested that the area should instead be called a national recreation area, noting that the designation would lead to less restrictive land management decisions over the long term.

If council members are concerned about future development in the area, Jackson said, they could ask Congress to make it clear that new oil and gas leases would not be allowed. In addition, he suggested that they could recommend language that would prohibit motorized recreation in special places like Mary Jane Canyon.

Tubbs, however, said she believes that national conservation area designations are appropriate in certain places, including the area that a majority of council members identified.

“There are some areas in the county that deserve that kind of restrictive management,” Tubbs said.

The designation, she said, “isn’t particularly scary” to her.

“It is to me,” Jackson said.

Within the broader conservation area, a majority of council members are proposing to keep the current boundaries of the Negro Bill Canyon and Mill Creek wilderness study areas largely in place, subject to a few minor changes.

As for the Sand Flats Recreation Area, which is sandwiched between the two wilderness study areas, Jackson suggested that the council could ask Congress to transfer ownership over to Grand County.

“I think we ought to ask them for ownership,” Jackson said. “Let’s think about that. We already manage it; we have the staff in place to manage it.”

The council is scheduled to continue its lands initiative discussions on Monday, March 9. It plans to hold a public hearing at the Grand Center on Tuesday, March 17 at 6 p.m. (The Grand Center is located at 182 N. 500 West.)

Utah’s congressional delegation is expected to introduce a draft version of the public lands initiative on March 27. But even after that time, county council members will have opportunities to offer their input on the bill.

Baird suggested that the legislative process could continue well into the foreseeable future.

“This Bishop bill is going to take years, really, probably, before it’s done,” Baird said.

Public hearing set for March 17; final vote on March 31

“We’ve got to make some trade-offs here … We’re working for everybody in the county – not just one side.”

For more information about the county council’s public lands initiative process, go to

The council is scheduled to continue its lands initiative discussions on Monday, March 9. It plans to hold a public hearing at the Grand Center on Tuesday, March 17 at 6 p.m. (The Grand Center is located at 182 N. 500 West.)