[Photo courtesy of the Utah Association of Counties]

The Utah Legislature is giving Grand County a little bit of time – and not much money – to prepare the kind of detailed resource management plan that takes federal agencies years to complete.

House Bill 323 requires the state’s 29 counties to come up with plans that provide for the “protection, conservation, development and managed use” of resources that are critical to the health, safety and welfare of their residents.

“The idea here is to help counties substantively beef up their policies by way of planning,” Utah Association of Counties senior policy analyst/ public lands counsel Mark Ward told the Grand County Council during its May 5 meeting.

The bill, which Gov. Gary Herbert signed into law in March, gives county planning commissions until July 2016 to make their recommendations. Each county’s governing body then has until the following New Year’s Day to finalize its individual plan.

Counties may be eligible for up to $50,000 in state funding for any work they do on the plans; additional funding may be available through the Utah Permanent Community Impact Fund (CIB).

Ward said the bill’s proponents, including state Rep. Keven J. Stratton, R-Orem, want to strengthen counties’ hands during their interactions with federal land management agencies.

However, the bill’s language has fueled speculation that state lawmakers are attempting to go even further by asserting control over federally managed lands in Utah.

As enacted, the bill says that federal government agencies must follow a county’s plans when they’re contemplating any action on their own resource management plans. Any action they take must be consistent with a county’s plans, and federal agencies must also integrate a county’s plans into their own.

According to Ward, the bill’s authors based their choice of wording on federal regulations and statutory provisions, which “generally” say that county governments deserve a seat at the table during consultations.

“It’s the legislature’s way of saying to the world, ‘We take serious those federal requirements – so much so that we’re going to parrot them in our own legislation,’” he said.

The bill requires counties to center their resource management plans around the issues of energy, air and water. They must then come up with detailed plans for 27 “core resources,” including livestock grazing, mining, wilderness and outdoor recreation.

Ward said that lawmakers want to ensure that federal agencies such as the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) understand where counties stand on a particular resource management issue.

“The hope would be that you would draft this carefully enough so that the BLM knows what your position is, and they don’t have to guess,” he said.

Ultimately, Utah officials will try to forge those 29 individual county plans into one statewide plan that will be used for similar purposes.

According to Ward, lawmakers acted on the belief that existing general plans in most of Utah’s counties are inadequate.

“The legislature deemed that too many county plans, when it comes to resource management on public lands, are not detailed enough for the counties to use as a fulcrum point,” he said.

But Grand County Planning Commission vice chair David Tubbs said he believes that Grand County’s general plan already goes a long way in providing that level of detail.

The county redid that plan in 2012 at considerable time and expense, hiring a consultant for $100,000, and going through an extensive public process.

Tubbs said he believes the detailed document that is now in place would answer many of the questions that H.B. 323 poses to the state’s counties; he suggested that county could fill in any blanks that remain.

Looking at the bigger picture, Tubbs questioned how well a one-size-fits-all state resource management plan would work.

“I don’t know if anybody at the state has read our general plan or the general plans of the other counties, but putting together an overall plan that suits Salt Lake County and Grand County seems to be a very difficult task,” he said.

Grand County Council member Lynn Jackson said the county will likely have to grapple with the expenses it could incur as it pieces the plan together.

“One of the jobs that the planning commission is probably going to have to wrestle with is, how much is this going to cost?” Jackson said.

As a former U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) official, Jackson is used to thinking in terms of resource management plans that take five to seven years and millions of dollars to complete. Yet the state has ordered the county to complete its work in a tiny fraction of that time, with an equally small fraction of allocated funding.

“These are the difficulties of how you do this level of work on that amount of money,” Jackson said.

Grand County Council member Chris Baird said he thinks it would be virtually impossible for the county to come up with the same level of detail that federal land management agencies include in their resource management plans.

If the county is going to get through the process, Baird anticipates it will have to lean heavily on those federal agencies for help, since they likely have the most authoritative information available.

“We obviously don’t have any of that kind of staff on hand and so it is daunting to even try to establish that kind of stuff if the notion is we’re going to do this by ourselves without the (federal) government,” he said.

Ward didn’t take any formal positions for or against the bill, but he identified two key problems with the way it was signed into law.

As it’s currently written, he said, the bill gives the state too much discretion over funding, creating a possible pathway to withhold project funding.

However, the Utah Association of Counties will likely ask the state to revisit that issue when the legislature reconvenes next year. The group might also request an extension of the current deadlines, based on feedback from member counties that are pressed for time to get through the extensive process.

“I’m getting input from all over the state that these are hard timeframes; that these are tough timeframes,” Ward said.

H.B. 323 gives counties until 2017 to beef up resource management policies

The legislature deemed that too many county plans, when it comes to resource management on public lands, are not detailed enough for the counties to use as a fulcrum point