If federal land managers want to know where Grand County stands on their proposed Master Leasing Plan for the greater Moab area, they only have to look back to the county council’s recent discussions about eastern Utah’s public lands initiative.
By a 4-3 vote on Tuesday, Nov. 17, council members approved a letter to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that asks the agency to consider the public lands initiative recommendations they forwarded on to Congress earlier this year.
“We believe the designations and management objectives developed in that process best reflect the needs of our diverse community and will safeguard the various economic, social and environmental assets for the future of Grand County,” the letter says.
Council members Chris Baird, Jaylyn Hawks, Mary McGann and Elizabeth Tubbs voted in favor of Baird’s motion to send the letter, while Ken Ballantyne, Lynn Jackson and Rory Paxman opposed it.
The council’s recommendations cover much of the same terrain that the BLM included in its draft Master Leasing Plan (MLP) for more than 785,000 acres of agency-administered lands around Moab.
In addition, the council submitted further suggestions about the BLM’s proposal to regulate potash development within the planning area. As it stands, the council said, some of the BLM’s “unrealistic” suggestions would likely have the effect of discouraging any “serious pursuit” of potash development in specific areas.
Overall, though, the council’s action marks a striking reversal from the previous council’s letter in support of a no-action alternative, which asked the agency to maintain the status quo under its 2008-era Resource Management Plan. McGann, who took office at the start of 2015, said that many of her constituents want the BLM to adopt the draft plan it’s laid out to the public.
“The majority of the comments and the information and such that we have gotten from the citizens really are supportive of (the BLM’s preferred alternative),” she said.
With a new council in place, McGann and others in the majority rejected Jackson’s proposal to reiterate the county’s past support for the no-action alternative.
The council finalized its position on the plan following a series of related workshops, although Jackson indicated that he wanted to discuss the proposal in greater depth.
“We spent a very little amount of time dealing with this MLP compared to the amount of time as a community and as a council we spent on the public lands initiative,” he said. “To me, it should have been the opposite. The public lands initiative is proposed congressional legislation, which may or may not happen. This MLP is a real thing; this is going to happen.”
Faced with that inevitability, Jackson said he believes that the proposal will bring anything but balance to land management within the planning area.
“This Master Leasing Plan was not intended at any point to be a multiple-use management scenario for this area,” said Jackson, a former BLM employee who spent 32 years with the agency.
While the plan is not expected to have any negative impacts on Moab’s recreation industry, Jackson predicts that it will have adverse effects on mineral resource development. According to Jackson, the BLM’s draft document “very clearly” states that the purpose of the proposal is to “constrain” mineral development.
“And that’s exactly what the MLP does,” he said.
Under the BLM’s current plan, mineral development would be forbidden in many scenic areas, as well as some high-use recreation areas, specially designated areas and areas with resources the agency deems “sensitive.” Beyond those locations, the BLM’s plan would minimize surface impacts by separating leases of oil and gas on the one hand and potash on the other.
At the same time, it would close BLM-administered lands next to Arches and Canyonlands national parks to mineral leasing and development.
Baird said there are some significant differences between the BLM’s proposal and the county’s public lands initiative recommendations.
“Just in general, there’s a lot more area closed to leasing on the east side of Arches on the BLM, and a lot less closed to leasing on the west,” he said.
In other areas, the county has asked Congress to create a one-mile buffer around Labyrinth Canyon that would be closed to mineral leases. That area isn’t closed at all under the BLM’s plan, and would instead be subject to no-surface occupancy restrictions, according to Baird.
Public Land Solutions managing director Ashley Korenblat said the overall proposal offers certainty to outdoor recreation business owners whose livelihoods depend on public lands.
According to Public Land Solutions, just under half of all jobs in Grand County are tied to the travel and tourist industry. In the next 15 years alone, the group says that recreational activities on nearby public lands are expected to generate more than $761 million in economic activity.
At the same time, Korenblat said, the BLM’s plan will ensure that energy development and potash mining can continue in appropriate areas.
“Tonight’s vote was a victory for everyone in Moab,” Korenblat said. “The Grand County Council recognized the BLM’s thoughtful process to strike a balance between responsible oil and gas development, potash mining and the protection of recreation resources on our public lands.”
Jackson, however, would beg to differ.
He cited agency statistics which project a potential loss of $1.87 billion in economic output, along with another $277 million loss in revenue from potash development.
“I think the consequences based on my experiences … in my field for so many years, and going over this document in so much detail, I can tell you this MLP is not good from a financial standpoint for Grand County in the long run,” he said.
The BLM has said that its preferred alternative provides operational flexibility for mineral leasing and development, although Jackson said the review process would be time-consuming.
“Yes, they have flexibility, but flexibility in a bureaucracy of that size takes months – if not years – to do,” he said.
Public comments on the BLM’s proposal are due by Monday, Nov. 23. To learn more about the plan, or how to comment, go to: www.blm.gov/ut/st/en/fo/moab/MLP/deis.html.
Council splits 4-3 on vote to send lands initiative recommendations to BLM
Tonight’s vote was a victory for everyone in Moab … The Grand County Council recognized the BLM’s thoughtful process to strike a balance between responsible oil and gas development, potash mining and the protection of recreation resources on our public lands.