[Moab Sun News file photo]

If state lawmakers wanted a crash-course tutorial on the engines that drive Grand County’s economy, they couldn’t have chosen a better place than Dead Horse Point State Park.

The road to the park with jaw-dropping views of the Colorado River passes by recent oil and gas development on Big Flat, and it also leads visitors from around the world to some of the most spectacular recreation areas in the West.

For a group of 53 Utah House representatives and 19 state senators, the trip through the area was a highlight of a Sept. 16-17 bus tour that took them to Moab and other communities in eastern Utah.

Like most people in the Beehive State, the overwhelming majority of Utah lawmakers live along the Wasatch Front, so they aren’t necessarily well-versed on issues that affect rural areas.

State Sen. Brian Shiozawa, R-Salt Lake City, said that more than anything else, the trip opened their eyes up to a reality that’s hard to grasp without seeing for themselves.

“It gave us a first-hand feel of what rural Utah is like, and how different it is,” Shiozawa said.

Each community has its own needs, and in Moab, Shiozawa said he heard concerns about educational funding and efforts to diversify the county’s economy beyond tourism, including Utah State University-Moab’s plans for an expanded campus.

“It’s really nice to get that perspective,” Shiozawa said.

In addition to hearing presentations from local officials, lawmakers went on rafting trips down the Colorado River, and paid a group visit to Arches National Park. Fun and games aside, perhaps the highest-profile moment of their visit occurred during the first stop along their tour of the Moab area.

State Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, and Grand County Council vice chair Chris Baird had a short but heated exchange over the issue of energy development on public lands, and Salt Lake City TV station Fox 13 was there to broadcast the brief debate to audiences around the state.

Noel began by accusing county officials of opposing oil projects that are miles from Arches National Park’s boundaries.

“That kind of stuff with me as a legislator doesn’t cut it,” Noel said, according to Fox 13’s video recording of the exchange.

“How do you justify saying that that was next to the park?” he asked.

Baird interjected that the county council had absolutely nothing to do with the protests, which were instigated by Salt Lake City resident Tim DeChristopher during the waning days of former President George W. Bush’s administration.

“It was frustrating because it was really quite off-topic and really inaccurate,” he told the Moab Sun News.

However, Baird said the brief exchange did not reflect the overall tone of the trip.

“The substance of what was going on was much more positive than that,” he said.

As Grand County Council member Lynn Jackson saw it, however, the lawmakers’ visit was a “mixed bag.”

On the one hand, he said, legislators – including a surprising number of people who had never been to southeastern Utah – learned about Grand County’s unique transportation and housing needs.

“I think it was a really good thing for legislators to do,” he said. “Most of them are concentrated along the Wasatch Front … and they need to see what we’re dealing with.”

Although Noel may have garnered the most attention, Jackson said the Kanab Republican was not alone in his criticism of Grand County. Other lawmakers who accompanied him on a tour bus were “pretty harsh” in their assessment that county officials stifle economic development, even as they put their hands out for state funding, Jackson said.

“It’s just kind of the same message that it seems we’re getting over and over again,” he said. “There’s definitely a perception among quite a few of them that Grand County is anti-development.”

Some of those lawmakers said the county’s perceived stance has repercussions beyond the county’s borders.

“The perception is that Grand County is always protesting development that would benefit not only the county, but the entire state,” Jackson said.

At one point, Noel claimed that Grand County tried to pass an ordinance that would bring a halt to energy development on lands that Utah’s School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) administers.

In response, Noel said he scuttled a bill that would have allowed the Grand County School District and its counterparts around the state to spend capital improvement project funds on other needs.

“I ran a bill that said that’s not going until you take your program off of trying to stop trust land development on their land,” Noel said. “That’s a fact.”

Baird said that the county council cannot pass any ordinances that affect SITLA lands – nor has it ever tried to do so, he said.

Moreover, he disputed Noel’s claims that the county council put a halt to oil and gas leases near Arches.

After President Barack Obama took office, the U.S. Interior Department withdrew a majority of the contested leases, and the Bureau of Land Management subsequently began to develop its Master Leasing Plan process. The proposal, which is still in the works, aims to balance oil, gas and potash development with recreation and conservation on public lands in southern Grand and northern San Juan counties.

“It seemed like Mike Noel was trying to blame local Grand County government for Tim DeChristopher’s protest and the BLM’s Master Leasing Plan,” Baird said. “I tried to explain that Grand County had nothing to do with the protest, nor did we have anything to do with the Master Leasing Plan.”

Baird said he tried to convey the message that Grand County is not against oil and gas development.

“But we are careful about how it happens,” he said.

As they toured the Big Flat area, Baird said that he and other county officials pointed out that it is among the least obtrusive oil fields they’re likely to see anywhere. Fidelity Exploration & Production has worked to minimize its aesthetic footprint in the area in response to citizens’ concerns, Baird said – not because it was obligated to do so under the law.

“We did try to impress upon them that Fidelity has done a lot to try to mitigate visual impacts,” Baird said.

As Fidelity continues to plan new oil and gas wells in the greater Big Flat area, oil production in Grand County is up 540 percent above the historic average, jumping from 82,710 barrels in 2011 to more than 1.34 million barrels last year. Baird said he hopes that state officials will take a closer look at those numbers when they review the county’s requests for financial help.

“The main thing that I think people need to know that they’re not aware of is our production statistics,” he said. “We’re doing really well.”

At the same time, he said, visitation has climbed by about 20 percent every year, with no drops in visitor numbers at any point in Moab’s recent history.

“To me, looking at the statistics, whatever we’re doing is working,” he said. “It’s hard to understand why we’re getting so much flack.”

In the long run, he said, both the recreational and energy industries have to make concessions, but he believes Grand County’s balanced approach toward tourism and development has been a success.

Noel, who could not be reached for comment, told Fox 13 that he supports tourism, but not at the expense of other industries.

“I’m totally 100 percent in favor of that, but I’m not in favor of saying that this is the only bucket that we’re going to protect,” he said.

Baird said he heard a similar message from other lawmakers, who want the county to broaden its economic base beyond tourism.

“I think they would like to see some sort of economic diversification that brings in higher-paying jobs,” he said.

Even if that scenario unfolds, Baird said the community must still find a way to provide housing for lower-income workers, as well as Moab’s middle-income workforce, including teachers, nurses and police officers.

“Regardless of job creation, we’re still going to have the affordable housing issue to deal with,” he said.

But Jackson said he doesn’t think that message went over very well with lawmakers, who said the private sector could best handle the issue.

“There isn’t a whole lot that the legislature can do about that kind of thing,” he said.

Jackson said he believes that lawmakers were ultimately much more receptive to USU-Moab’s expansion plans, thanks in part to a strong presentation by USU-Moab Dean Steve Hawks.

“I think that he and other legislators recognized the economic driver that universities are,” he said.

Rep. Mike Noel clashes with council member over energy development

I think it was a really good thing for legislators to do. Most of them are concentrated along the Wasatch Front … and they need to see what we’re dealing with.