Rep. Rob Bishop, second from left, and Rep. Jason Chaffetz addressed local residents during an August 2013 town hall meeting on the Public Lands Initiative. [Courtesy photo]

Utah’s congressional delegation likes to say that its Public Lands Initiative is a locally driven effort that was built from the bottom up. But in Grand County, at least, the initial recommendations that Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz included in a draft version of the bill often go against the council’s formal proposals to the delegation, or ignore them entirely.

Among other things, the draft omits wilderness areas that a majority of council members would like to establish in the eastern Book Cliffs, while creating a Book Cliffs transportation corridor that the same majority opposes. At the same time, it would carve out new wilderness in areas where the council expressly opposes the designation, including the lower section of the popular Whole Enchilada mountain biking trail, and nearly all of the already-protected Arches National Park.

Now that they’ve had time to look at the weeks-old draft in greater detail, council members are in the process of writing a letter that asks the all-Republican delegation to review some of the key discrepancies they’ve identified.

Grand County Council member Lynn Jackson said the overall changes are the result of what happened when a diverse group of stakeholders participated in the lands initiative process, which Bishop dubs the “Grand Bargain.”

“We said with our 4-3 vote last year what we thought things ought to look like,” Jackson said during the council’s meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 16. “We got something different. It’s what compromise looks like.”

Still, even Jackson is baffled by the draft proposal to set aside nearly all of Arches as wilderness.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 defines wilderness as an area “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” With park visitation at Arches hitting a new record of nearly 1.4 million in 2015, Jackson and others say it might be a stretch to slip the park into that category.

“The absurdity of making the entire park wilderness just doesn’t make sense,” he said.

Jackson said council members could ask the delegation to correct obvious mistakes in the draft, as well as a couple of key mapping errors. If they want to say anything else, he suggested that they could go on record asking Bishop and Chaffetz to reconsider the county’s recommendations.

“And I’d kind of leave it at that,” he said.

Grand County Council chair Elizabeth Tubbs said she agrees with that approach, questioning the feasibility of revisiting the issues that past and present councils discussed in depth between 2013 and 2015.

“It’s really hard for me … to go back to this after the last couple of years spending time on this,” Tubbs said. “It wasn’t an easy process, by any stretch of the imagination.”

Tubbs said the council could limit its feedback to the particular concerns that give the council some heartache, although it isn’t clear to her whether the delegation’s ears are open at this point.

“We don’t have a timeline when we even have to get comments back in, so that makes me wonder: Are the comments going to be considered?” she asked. “I’m not sure what is happening with this anywhere, so I think the only thing we can do is decide what, if anything, we want to be on the record about.”

In the past, Bishop has promoted the initiative as a plan that aims to balance conservation, recreation and development on public lands in seven eastern Utah counties.

At the start of the county’s involvement in the process, though, Jackson cautioned that once the proposal hit the “meat grinder” on the Potomac in Washington, D.C., there’s no telling what might come out on the other end.

A week later, he said, he got a call from Bishop.

“He made it clear in no uncertain terms: It’s his bill,” Jackson said. “It’s not Grand County’s bill; it’s not Emery County’s bill; it’s not anybody’s bill … So we can poke that bear, and I don’t think that’s good.”

Grand County Council member Jaylyn Hawks voiced mixed feelings about the best approach that the council should take, moving forward.

“I am hesitant to just say we stick with our original recommendations, although that’s point by point what I would like to do, because I feel like our original recommendations weren’t treated with very much respect,” she said.

Like Jackson, Grand County Council member Mary McGann has concerns about the Arches proposal.

But she parts ways with him on the delegation’s proposal to transfer control of the Sand Flats Recreation Area from joint county and federal management to Grand County. McGann and a majority of council members oppose the idea, given the potential management costs that the county and its taxpayers could incur.

“We’ve already done a fiscal study and found that that was not a feasible thing for us to do, financially,” she said. “I’d like to have it stay in a partnership, as it is now.”

Other contentious proposals would prohibit the federal government from designating new wilderness areas as prime Class I airsheds, and would transfer ownership of contested RS 2477 roads to the State of Utah.

With so many facets of the draft in dispute, council member Chris Baird cautioned that a “completely exhaustive” response to the delegation could span 20 pages from end to end.

“So we’re going to probably have to pick the handful of things that we think are really important to exemplify and make those points,” he said.

While there are some draft proposals that Baird supports, Baird is especially concerned about the potential designation of new wilderness in the Grandstaff Trailhead area, which could potentially lead to the permanent closure of the Whole Enchilada Trail.

“That would be a catastrophe if that happened,” he said. “I mean, that’s one of the most famous mountain biking trails in the world.”

In other cases, some proposed land-use designations overlap, and in the event that the bill passed, Baird fears that Congress would end up creating different management objectives for many of the same places.

Baird is also unhappy about the proposed conveyance of the Book Cliffs transportation corridor, which could promote the development of oil sands, oil shale and conventional oil and gas projects in the wildlife-rich area.

Nor was he expecting the delegation to do away with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM’s) unrelated Master Leasing Plan for hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands in southern Grand and northern San Juan counties.

The previous county council opposed everything but a no-action alternative for the BLM’s proposal. However, the agency’s stated goal of balancing recreation and conservation with energy and potash development on federal lands near Moab is one that Baird and a majority of current council members support.

“If I had known that, I would have probably had a different take on what to do with the PLI, because I just assumed that if we didn’t address it in the PLI, that it would be managed according to the Master Leasing Plan,” he said. “But now that that’s changed, it also changes my opinion on a lot of other things, because they’re asking to nullify that plan.”

There are certain elements that would have to disappear altogether before Baird said he’d be willing to negotiate with the delegation’s members.

“And I don’t think they’re going to, and so, I just feel like, ‘Stick with the thing we came up with and see where it goes,’” he said. “It’s out of our hands, anyway, at this point.”

Current version of public lands bill would “protect” Arches National Park, could shut down Whole Enchilada Trail and allow Book Cliffs road

I am hesitant to just say we stick with our original recommendations, although that’s point by point what I would like to do, because I feel like our original recommendations weren’t treated with very much respect.