Rep. Rob Bishop launched his eastern Utah public lands initiative with the hope that it could help resolve long-standing disputes over the long-term management of federal lands across the region.
But many of those conflicts were still on display at a March 17 Grand County Council public hearing on the council’s tentative lands initiative recommendations to the Utah Republican’s office.
Council members are used to hearing from residents who have differing opinions on the best ways to manage federal lands in the county. At a similar April 2014 hearing on the initiative, conservationists and environmentalists decried the previous council’s proposals to balance conservation with recreation and development.
This time around, the council heard from a louder and larger crowd on the opposite end of the spectrum, with numerous speakers calling for a greater emphasis on multiple-use management and future development of oil, gas and potash resources.
The shift in tone was perhaps bound to happen, following the outcome of last November’s general election.
Since the previous public hearing on the lands bill, the council’s complexion has changed significantly. Three new members took office in January, and a majority of council members now support greater protections of the county’s federally owned lands.
Their current proposals to close roads, create new wilderness and carve out a national conservation area east of Moab came under criticism from speaker after speaker who identified themselves as fifth- or sixth-generation county residents.
One woman who did not give her name said that recent transplants who support greater protections of public lands can have all the wilderness they want if they go between the town of Green River and Price.
“But leave us alone,” she said. “We have had enough. You guys have come in here, and now you don’t want anybody else to come. Well, I’m sorry, I wish we could go back 30 years, and you guys wouldn’t even be here.”
Others opposed recommendations to close any roads in the county, based on the belief that the closures would limit access to older or disabled residents and visitors who cannot get around as easily as others.
Dan Mick of Moab Jeep Tours said the county has already made enough concessions on public lands in the past. Enough is enough, he said.
“You guys have got me fighting mad,” Mick said. “I’d rather speak in church than be here right now. I’m here to tell you: no more road closures, no more conservation national areas (sic), no more wilderness.”
On the other hand, Emily Stock and Marc Thomas encouraged the council to support a formal wilderness designation for Labyrinth Canyon. Thomas said he believes that council members are struggling with their plans to protect the area, calling their approach a “piecemeal” proposal.
“I urge you one last time to dispense with half measures,” he said.
Conservationists were largely supportive of other council recommendations to create new wilderness areas in the northern and eastern parts of the county, including the Book Cliffs north of Interstate 70.
However, Moab resident Misty Adams said that many of the areas that the council identified don’t qualify as true wilderness.
“Maybe you don’t understand what wilderness is,” she said. “The dictionary definition of wilderness is … a tract or region uncultivated and uninhabited by human beings … an area essentially undisturbed by human activity … (or) an empty or pathless area or region.”
While Adams and other critics of new wilderness said the designation would restrict public access for older and disabled residents and visitors, Moab resident Bill Love rejected that idea.
Although he is no longer able to reach many of the places he used to visit, Love said that this generation should not deny his children, grandchildren and others the same things he enjoyed for 60 years.
“You must protect it for them,” Love said. “Just because I’m old is meaningless.”
Moab resident Darcey Brown said she’s pleased that the new council members listened to conservation groups’ lands initiative proposals. Still, she said she’s disappointed that they didn’t come up with recommendations to create even more wilderness.
County resident Joe Day, on the other hand, said he feels that many local residents lost their collective voice in the process under the new council.
He accused the council of opening its doors up to SUWA, the Sierra Club and Grand Canyon Trust; Day also objected when Grand County Council chair Elizabeth Tubbs said she would allow a Sierra Club representative from Chicago to speak.
“I think you made it real clear tonight in the move that you made in allowing somebody from another state to speak, and not us,” he said. “That your interest is not our interest, but it’s an interest of large groups with a lot of money coming in and telling us locals what we will and will not do, and how we will do it.”
In fact, the council gave Day and others who filled out requests to speak an equal amount of time to voice their opinions. However, the woman from Chicago ultimately did not come forward to speak, after Day repeatedly criticized her in front of an estimated 200 people.
Brown, meanwhile, picked apart criticisms of people who work with “special interest groups,” calling those statements “misrepresentations” and “deceptions.”
“We live here – we volunteer here – and there’s a big difference between a big oil company, which truly is a special interest, and people that are local citizens that have concerns about how their lands are being used,” Brown said.
Moab resident Karen Robinson noted that she belongs to SUWA, the Sierra Club and Grand Canyon Trust. All three groups are made up of local citizens, she said, and many of those residents believe the previous council ignored their input.
“That’s why there’s a new council,” Robinson said.
Both sides were sharply divided over a tentative council recommendation to create a national recreation area (NCA) that would protect the La Sal Mountains watershed, where runoff replenishes the aquifers in Spanish and Castle valleys.
Dwight Johnston said he believes the designation would eventually lead to stricter management that puts an emphasis on conservation above all else.
If the council is concerned about the watershed, Johnston said it could ask Congress to call it a national recreation area, and simply exclude oil and gas development in the future.
“That’s all the protection you need,” Johnston said.
Johnston claimed that people could say goodbye to hunting, livestock grazing, mountain biking and other activities in the La Sals if the range is included in a national conservation area.
However, a county council overview of its recommendations clearly states that hunting and grazing would continue within the area. In addition, the overview says that no roads within the area would be closed, and it allows for future consideration of new roads and trails in the NCA.
Castle Valley Mayor Dave Erley, who supports efforts to protect the town’s aquifer, questioned the kinds of claims that Johnston made.
“I think it’s a little bit of a scare tactic,” Erley said.
The council is scheduled to vote on its final public lands initiative recommendations on Tuesday, March 31. Congress was expected to introduce a draft version of a much broader public lands bill on Friday, March 27. However, Tubbs has since learned that those plans have been postponed to a still-undetermined date.
For more information about the county’s public lands initiative process, go to grandcountyutah.net/777/Public-Lands-Bill-Process.
New county council recommendations come under fire