The controversial draft version of eastern Utah’s Public Lands Initiative is getting a makeover.
Four months after a majority of Grand County Council members raised concerns about the proposal, representatives of Utah’s congressional delegation outlined changes to the draft that address many – but not all – of the council’s initial recommendations. Staffers from the offices of Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz, both R-Utah, went over the latest version of the still-gestating bill during a special council meeting on Wednesday, June 1.
Among other things, they noted that they revised contentious language that would have cleared the way for the development of a paved highway through the rugged Book Cliffs of northeastern Grand County. In its place, they inserted a broader reference to a proposed utility corridor through the area.
Fred Ferguson, who serves as Chaffetz’ chief of staff, said the concession recognizes that Gov. Gary Herbert’s office and others are pushing for a route that would connect the Uintah Basin with Interstate 70 about 70 miles northeast of Moab.
“There’s a large interest among many to see some kind of a corridor from the Uintah Basin down to I-70,” Ferguson said. “We understand that the transportation issue is very controversial.”
Whatever they ultimately decide to call it, the proposed corridor is still a deal-killer for Grand County Council member Chris Baird, who said the Six County Infrastructure Coalition is determined to move forward with the Book Cliffs Highway.
“To me, this is just a component of that, so I’ll just say flatly that as long as this is in the bill, I do not support it, period,” Baird said.
But outgoing Grand County Council member Lynn Jackson, who has supported recent feasibility studies of a proposed “enhanced transportation corridor” through the Book Cliffs, noted that the proposed route is far from pristine: An unpaved road already services 300 to 400 existing oil and gas wells in the area, he said.
Jackson urged Ferguson to be cognizant of the fact that the council’s positions on various Public Lands initiative recommendations are not unanimous, noting that he and Baird would likely cancel each other out.
“You need to be aware that (when) we voted on this stuff, it was a 4-3 vote,” he said.
While the council remains divided over the Book Cliffs issue, the delegation scaled back a proposal that baffled council members across the political spectrum: It would have designated nearly all of the already-protected Arches National Park as wilderness.
Jackson – a retired U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) employee – said he believes the proposal would have “sealed the deal” on the park’s move to implement a controversial reservation-based entrance system.
“I worked in the federal system, and those folks are pretty tricky,” he said.
In another significant revision, the delegation eliminated a proposal to do away with the BLM’s separate Master Leasing Plan (MLP) for more than 700,000 acres of lands it administers in southern Grand and northern San Juan counties.
A majority of council members support the plan, which aims to balance recreation and conservation with energy and potash development on federal lands near Moab, according to the BLM. But Ferguson said Utah’s delegation remains concerned about what a parallel administrative process could do to the Public Lands Initiative.
“What we want to avoid is any type of conflict between the two,” he said.
The delegation is now proposing to set up a local advisory council that has some “teeth” to ensure that the MLP and the Public Lands Initiative overlap as much as possible, he said.
In other changes, the delegation eliminated language that would have conveyed management of the Sand Flats Recreation Area to Grand County. That’s a change that some council members were not eager to embrace, given the additional costs and responsibilities that would come with the job.
The revised draft also reroutes the boundaries of the proposed Grandstaff Wilderness near Negro Bill Canyon to accommodate the Whole Enchilada mountain biking trail. Even before the delegation got to work on the draft, Baird pointed out that the boundaries would have to be redrawn to preserve mountain bikers’ access to the world-famous trail, and Ferguson was quick to acknowledge the delegation’s mistake.
“I think that was more of a mapping oversight than a stated policy position,” he said.
Grand County Council chair Elizabeth Tubbs said it sounds as though the delegation has listened to many of the council’s concerns, and she voiced her support for continued involvement in the Public Lands Initiative process.
“Speaking for myself, I would like to keep the conversation going,” Tubbs said.
But there are still a couple of major hurdles that could lead to divisions among council members, she said.
“We’re not unanimous,” Tubbs said. “We’re not unanimous in this community, for sure. We’re actually a pretty good representation on the council.”
One of those potential hurdles centers around the Public Lands Initiative authors’ proposal to eliminate federal Clean Air Act protections of designated wilderness areas in the region.
“We want to make it clear: Wilderness does not come with Class I status,” Ferguson said.
The delegation is also holding firm on any trade-ins of lands that would make up for the loss of any state-owned School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) property inside new national conservation areas. Ferguson said the delegation views the proposed trade-ins as one of most important components – if not the most important component – of the initiative.
“From a practical standpoint, there are going to be hundreds of thousands of school trust lands that are captured or trapped within conservation designations, and they’ve got to be relocated somewhere,” he said. “If they’re not, those lands will essentially be useless to the school trust, and that’s something that I don’t think our bosses would support.”
There are only a limited number of areas where the potential for mineral development is significant and economical, he said, and there are certain areas within Grand County where mineral development makes sense.
“We want to balance that out to the best extent that we can,” he said.
In a sign of their stated commitment to that balance, Ferguson noted that the bill’s authors are proposing to designate new wilderness around the Green River’s Labyrinth Canyon, and also create a national conservation area along the outer fingers of the area.
“That’s something that went above and beyond even what this council recommended because we realize how important that area is to the outdoor recreation community, to the conservation community and just the community at large,” Ferguson said.
Past stakeholders feel left out of process, push for national monument
After all of the time they spent working with the delegation, conservationists and environmental groups like the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) feel as though the draft proposal does not take their priorities into consideration. SUWA Executive Director Scott Groene and his organization have taken to calling the proposal the “Plundered Lands Initiative.”
“We’re saddened that the Plundered Lands Initiative has become that,” Groene told the Moab Sun News. “We worked hard for three years to try to find an agreement.”
In recent months, he said, Utah’s congressional delegation has had no contact with SUWA or representatives of area tribes who were once involved in the process.
“Bishop and Chaffetz have refused to work with either the tribes or conservation groups like us on the PLI,” Groene said.
Although Bishop currently chairs the influential U.S. House Natural Resources Committee, Groene is dubious that Utah’s congressional delegation can make serious headway on the bill in the seven months before President Barack Obama leaves office and a new Congress takes shape.
“Anything in the universe is possible, but I don’t think anyone takes very seriously the idea that Congress could pass an enormously controversial public lands bill with the time that’s remaining in this presidential election year,” Groene said.
Instead, SUWA wants the president to declare a 1.9-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument in San Juan County – a move that Bishop and Chaffetz are expressly hoping to avoid.
Ferguson said the delegation wants to avoid a repeat of the situation that led the president to create the 704,000-acre Basin and Range National Monument in Lincoln County, Nevada, just over a decade after Congress approved a Lincoln County public lands bill.
“The concern from the outside looking in is you go through a congressional process, having meetings like these and the ones you all have held, to then just 10 years later have, literally, the amount of protected acreage double,” Ferguson said.
Jackson said he can’t imagine going forward without an Antiquities Act exclusion that would limit future administrations from using their powers under the 1906 law to create new national monuments in the region. He suggested that the bill’s authors should consider limitations that would prevent future administrations from declaring new monuments that stretch beyond, say, 10,000 or 50,000 acres.
At this point, though, Ferguson said the bill does not include any such provisions.
Obama administration officials and representatives from Utah’s delegation are discussing the issue on an almost-daily basis, and Ferguson said he and others are encouraged by their most recent talks.
“I think what we took away from that meeting is that the administration does want to work on a legislative solution,” he said.
Changes incorporate some county proposals, but Tubbs says concerns remain
Speaking for myself, I would like to keep the conversation going.
To read the current draft version of the Public Lands Initiative, go to www.utahpli.com.