Grand County Council member Chris Baird explains the rationale for sending a letter clarifying the council's stand on the Eastern Utah Public Lands Initiative. The council voted 4-3 at its regular meeting on Tuesday, May 17, to send the letter to Utah's congressional leaders, the U.S. Department of the Interior and the White House. [Photo by Eric Trenbeath / Moab Sun News]

A majority of Grand County Council members are concerned that Rep. Rob Bishop is moving forward with his Utah Public Lands Initiative (PLI) without responding to issues they raised with the draft legislation.

At its regular meeting on Tuesday, May 17, the council voted 4-3 to send a letter to Bishop and PLI co-sponsor Rep. Jason Chaffetz, both R-Utah; the U.S. Department of the Interior; and the White House; reiterating that they do not support the initiative in its current form.

Council members Elizabeth Tubbs, Chris Baird, Jaylyn Hawks and Mary McGann voted in favor of the motion, while Lynn Jackson, Rory Paxman and Ken Ballantyne voted against it.

“It feels to me like it’s moving forward without us, and it feels to me like it’s moving along without our concerns being addressed,” Baird said. “I think we need to send this letter off, and if we do, it will improve our chances of getting what we want from this Public Lands Initiative.”

Tubbs said that there has been a lot of discussion recently about moving the legislation forward, and that Utah’s delegation was recently in talks with President Barack Obama’s administration.

“I’ve been told the talks went very well,” Tubbs said. “I have no idea what that means.”

In addition to a lack of response to the council’s concerns, Tubbs noted that Grand County was recently included in a press release that reiterated support for the PLI process, without the full council’s consent or awareness.

“I can only assume that there may be some people out there, either here or in Washington, D.C., that might believe we are 100 percent happy with the draft bill as it stands,” Tubbs said. “Since we have never received any kind of a response from the delegation here in Utah, and I understand it is now being worked on in D.C. … I felt it was important for us to send a letter to everyone and make our position clear.”

Jackson said he isn’t opposed to sending a letter asking for feedback. But he added that he doesn’t agree with the letter in its current form.

“What we are telling them here is that we don’t support the legislation,” Jackson said.

Jackson suggested that the council could write a letter that asked the delegation what it did with the council’s recommendations, while clarifying the delegation’s thought processes that shaped the current draft.

“This seems a little impetuous,” he said. “’Well, we didn’t get what we wanted so we don’t support it.’”

Baird said that he had heard through the grapevine that Grand County’s position is being misrepresented, and that it needs to ensure that its concerns will be addressed.

“If we don’t make that clear, then there isn’t any point in sending the letter,” Baird said.

The council first sent a letter to Bishop on March 1, outlining concerns it had with changes made to its recommendations, such as the omission of wilderness areas and the inclusion of a transportation corridor in the Book Cliffs.

Other changes include an expansion of Arches National Park; the proposed elimination of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM’s) Master Leasing Plan; and a permanent exclusion of executive authority under the Antiquities Act that could be used to designate a national monument.

Bishop has championed the PLI as a “bottom-up” process that seeks to reconcile various land use designations on millions of acres of federal public land in seven counties in eastern Utah.

Passage of the initiative is widely viewed as a way to avert the presidential proclamation of a Bears Ears National Monument in neighboring San Juan County.

The undertaking has spanned more than three years and has brought various stakeholders to the table, including oil, gas and mining interests; ranchers; conservationists; and outdoor recreationists. County officials across the region have held public meetings, taken public comments and formed recommendations that they forwarded to Bishop for his draft proposal.

In a live interview with the Salt Lake Tribune on Monday, May 16, Bishop said he is very close to introducing the bill and that there wouldn’t be many changes to the draft “as far as major issues and substance.”

“What you will see are maybe some changes in the language, definitions of how things are going to be managed,” Bishop said. “You won’t see a great deal of difference as far as the amount of land or the kinds of things we’re doing, maybe some things around the edges that clarify what our intent actually was.”

Tribune reporter Jennifer Napier-Pearce asked Bishop about concerns that Summit and Grand counties had, and whether they had been addressed.

“A lot of the concerns are based on misinformation,” Bishop said. “In our efforts, we tried to put language that would be generic for all the counties, and some of the specifics they wanted weren’t included and I think we’ve gone back to that and have added those specifics in. This is a compromise: You won’t get everything you want; you’ll get most of what you want. Everything they really wanted are primarily there for both counties.”

Baird said he is concerned with Bishop’s appraisal that Grand County’s issues had to do with definitions and wording.

“These things are substantive and are a lot more than just semantics,” he said. “The concerns we have need to be resolved before we can endorse the process.”

Bishop didn’t say when he planned to introduce the legislation. But he said he has plenty of time, and added there’s a good chance that Congress will pass the bill.

“I control the agenda on the House side and that is very helpful, and (Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah) is ready to pick it up on the Senate side,” he said. “When you have something as state specific as the PLI, Congress tends to look to the delegations. Our delegation is in lock step agreement with our goals.”

Tubbs acknowledged that Grand County was never promised a response to its concerns, but said that didn’t mean its shouldn’t expect it, and that it is important that the council made its position clear.

“Since this was always touted as a grassroots, county-level process, there is a responsibility on the part of our delegation to address concerns that the county brings forward,” Tubbs said.

Bishop says counties getting most of what they want; Jackson calls letter “impetuous”

Since this was always touted as a grassroots, county-level process, there is a responsibility on the part of our delegation to address concerns that the county brings forward.