[Photo by Nathan Wynn / Moab Sun News]

After more than a year of deliberation by two county councils, and numerous public meetings often characterized by heated exchanges and outbursts, the Grand County Council voted March 31 to send its public lands initiative recommendation off to Congress.

The public lands initiative is intended to be a “bottom-up approach” for determining how federal public lands should be managed in the state, based on input from various stakeholders, as well as local residents and community leaders. It is seen by many as a necessary compromise to avoid a presidential proclamation for a Greater Canyonlands National Monument.

Council members Elizabeth Tubbs, Chris Baird, Mary Mullen McGann and Jaylyn Hawks voted to approve the recommendation. Lynn Jackson, Ken Ballantyne and Rory Paxman voted against it.

Jackson said he couldn’t vote for it since there were individual items in it that he didn’t support.

Tubbs said there were things in the final package that each of the members probably took issue with, but that all of those items had passed by a majority vote and thus the whole package represented the final say of the council.

The council chambers overflowed down the hallway and into the foyer in front of the clerk’s office. Extra chairs were set up in front of a closed circuit TV so that everyone in attendance could watch the proceedings.

The workshop adjourned at approximately 11 p.m.

Tubbs told the audience that public comments would not be taken since they were attending a special council workshop, not a normal council meeting or public hearing. She asked that everyone refrain from booing or clapping.

“The arguments are getting louder and the rhetoric is getting more violent,” she said. “We need to talk about compromise. We need to get the anger out of the way and talk to one another.”

Conduct during the workshop was generally quiet and respectful, with members from all sides of the issues being equally represented among the more than 200 that attended.

The workshop was set to hammer out unresolved matters pertaining to the council’s recommendations, including the designation of national recreation and conservation areas, wilderness, OHV specific areas, wild and scenic river protection, and resource development in Grand County.

Discussions on road closures and the development of new roads and trails were the most divided topic of the evening.

“I’m opposed to closing any roads or trails in the area,” Jackson said.

Jackson then made a motion for a “no net loss” policy of trail mileage using the 2008 U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Travel Plan as a baseline. Under the motion, any road closed in an area would have to be made up for mile for mile somewhere else.

Baird said that a no net loss policy without a no net gain was one sided.

“If we are going to treat this stuff with equity, then the other side of this equation is a no net gain,” he said. “In terms of trying to balance quiet recreation with motorized recreation, we haven’t come up with a balance at all.”

The motion passed, with Baird, Hawks and McGann voting against it.

Jackson also made a motion to amend the council’s earlier decision to close the road down 10 Mile Canyon to the Green River. He said the road had been used for generations.

McGann said she had spoken to biologists from the BLM who told her that roads in riparian areas are detrimental to wildlife.

“Just because it’s been there a long time doesn’t mean it’s appropriate,” she said.

Tubbs said that she had driven down there last week and that if it were up to her, she would close the road. But she suggested closing it at the halfway point. Jackson amended his motion to do that and it passed 4-3 with Baird, McGann and Hawks opposed.

The question of what to do with Labyrinth Canyon on the Green River proved to be the most troublesome point. Conservation groups have long sought wilderness designation for the serpentine river canyon because of its outstanding scenery and opportunity for solitude.

Mathew Gross, media director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said after the meeting that throughout the process, Grand County residents have overwhelmingly favored protecting places like Labyrinth Canyon.

“For any legislation to be successful, it would have to protect places like this as wilderness,” Gross said.

Hawks said that Labyrinth Canyon possesses some off the most spectacular scenery in the area, as well as the county’s greatest concentration of mineral wealth.

“In a perfect world, I would recommend this as wilderness,” Hawks said. “But in a community that needs mineral royalties for a care center and other amenities, we need to provide for that.”

Hawks made a motion to up the council’s recommendation from a No Surface Occupancy designation along the rim of the canyon to a National Conservation Area (NCA). The No Surface Occupancy restriction would still allow for horizontal drilling in the area, while maintaining the viewshed along the river.

She said that it was unprecedented to have NSO restrictions in an area that wasn’t formally designated as some other kind of protected area, and that the designation would “make our intentions clear that we want to maintain the area in a wilderness state.”

Baird said that he wasn’t sure if making the area a NCA made a difference or not, but that he would “hate to see this whole process go down the toilet because we didn’t do something for Labyrinth Canyon.”

Jackson said he appreciated Hawks “thinking outside of the box,” but that he wouldn’t vote for it. He advocated designating the area as a “Special Management Area,” under a motion that passed unanimously.

Reactions to the final recommendation from local citizens were divided, with some traditional land users feeling that a compromise had been reached, while conservationists felt that it fell short.

Rick Leech, a member of the audience who said he represented the conservative side of the community, felt that some good compromises had been reached.

“I want to see the roads protected,” he said. “I haven’t seen much damage from oil and gas. The potash plant from Dead Horse Point is a little bit of an eyesore, but I don’t see any real environmental damage.”

“There are a lot of people who don’t want to see any compromises,” Leech added. “I don’t want this to be the first step in an incremental approach to losing access.”

Wayne Hoskisson, who represented the Sierra Club on the initiative, said the council’s final recommendation fell short of creating meaningful designations to protect areas critical to conservation and that received broad public support.

“I think an honest effort to reach compromise failed because three members of the council would never support realistic and necessary conservation measures,” Hoskisson said. “I do not believe local Sierra Club members can support this recommendation.”

Ride with Respect Executive Director Clif Koontz said that the new council’s draft proposal swung too far in favor of preservation. But the concessions that council members made at the workshop will help garner support from the OHV community, he said.

Koontz said that if the current proposal did become law, it would still be the largest conservation gain in the history of Grand County.

“The new council deserves tremendous credit for persevering through this difficult process to approach a balanced proposal,” Koontz said.

Grand County resident Emily Stock said that, “Throughout this process it has been obvious that the majority of Grand County residents want more land protection. This recommendation is a surprisingly unfortunate outcome.”

Council members aim for compromise on thorniest issues; Overflow crowd largely respectful during five-hour meeting