[Moab Sun News file photo]

The Grand County Council’s current majority has made no secret of its stance against any new roads or utility corridors through the Book Cliffs.

But just in case federal officials and others still aren’t sure where four of its seven members stand on the issue, Grand County Council chair Elizabeth Tubbs plans to draft a letter that reiterates their opposition.

Tubbs brought her concerns to the council’s attention after Utah’s Permanent Community Impact Fund Board (CIB) recently approved the Six County Infrastructure Coalition’s request for $1 million in project funding. The combination of grant and loan monies will allow the coalition to move forward with the first phase of an “environmental planning” study of a transportation corridor through public lands in the rugged area near the Utah-Colorado state lines.

“I think everybody knows we’ve already declined being in favor of a transportation or utility corridor, or whatever you want to call it,” Tubbs said during the council’s regular meeting on Tuesday, June 21. “But this is a step in that process of moving toward that, and that’s where I feel we should make our position clear.”

Proponents of the corridor say it could ease a major transportation bottleneck in the Uintah Basin near Vernal, where energy companies face increasingly heavy traffic on area roads to get their products to distant refineries and markets. More recently, officials in Uintah County have touted a possible route through the Book Cliffs as a “national parks highway” that could connect Utah’s parks and monuments with Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks in Wyoming.

But critics worry that taxpayers would be on the hook to pay for a project that would promote the development of conventional and unconventional fossil fuel development in the largely wild Book Cliffs. About 99.5 percent of current oil production in the Uintah Basin comes from conventional oil wells, although a recent feasibility study found that unconventional oil sands and oil shale developers in the Book Cliffs could eventually enter the marketplace.

That study identified two potential routes through the Book Cliffs that could connect the basin to Interstate 70 northeast of Moab: a 41-mile route through East Canyon, or a 42-mile route through Hay Canyon. Either route would largely follow existing alignments, although crews would have to build a new spur to an I-70 interchange near Cisco, about halfway between Moab and Grand Junction, Colorado.

According to Tubbs, questions about the council’s position on the corridor came up during the CIB’s discussion of the coalition’s funding request on Thursday, June 9. However, Grand County Council member Lynn Jackson said someone was quick to answer after a delegation of Grand County officials stepped out of the meeting for a few minutes.

“They very clearly said that Grand County was not in favor of this,” Jackson said.

Council debates county influence over coalition

The coalition’s founders say they established the two-year-old entity to develop roads, rail lines, airport facilities and other infrastructure projects across eastern Utah, and the council’s predecessors voted in late 2014 to join the six counties. But in one of its first actions upon taking office, the current council voted 5-2 in January 2015 to abandon the coalition, with Jackson and council member Rory Paxman voting against the majority.

Since that time, Jackson said, coalition members have left the door open in the hope that Grand County will consider the possibility of rejoining them.

“They wanted us to be on board,” he said. “They invited us again.”

Likewise, Tubbs said she heard much talk about inviting Grand County to participate in the coalition, or in the environmental planning process for the proposed corridor. But she said that she has many questions about how the project has gotten as far as it has without the county council’s support.

“Because … the enabling documents of the six county coalition state pretty clearly that a project that’s totally contained within the boundaries of one county needs the approval of the legislative body of that county to move forward,” she said. “And the response I’ve gotten from several different people is, ‘Well, if you’d had a seat at the table – if you were part of it – then you could have objected to it and whatever.’ And I don’t actually think that that’s accurate. I think that the Six County Infrastructure Coalition is bound by its own enabling documents, whether we’re at the table or not.”

As Jackson reads the interlocal agreement, those provisions apply only to counties that ultimately joined the coalition. Council members could gain more leverage, he said, if they partnered up with the six counties.

“So if we were a signatory to that, then this council, which – based on its actions – I assume we would kill this thing dead in its tracks,” Jackson said.

Grand County Council member Mary McGann said the council’s letter should ask the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) not to go forward with its own study of the coalition’s proposal. At the same time, she said, it should remind the coalition of its past promise to respect an individual county’s wishes on any projects under consideration.

“They said, ‘No, we will not push our will on another county,’” McGann said. “Well, this feels like someone’s will is being pushed upon our county, and I believe the majority – a great number of people in our county – do not wish to see a road through the Book Cliffs. That’s why we have this form of government.”

For Grand County Council member Chris Baird, it would be a waste of time to ask the infrastructure coalition to reconsider its views on the proposal.

“I don’t pretend to think that Grand County can influence the coalition out of this project, and so I haven’t put a lot of energy into thinking that I would change their minds, or we could change their minds,” he said.

However, it is important to make sure that BLM officials clearly understand the county’s position before they embark on any detailed reviews of the coalition’s plans, he said.

“Would the BLM be willing to go through that process if the owner of the road says, ‘We don’t want this to happen?'” Baird asked.

Grand County Council vice chair Jaylyn Hawks suggested that the money CIB allocated to the “environmental planning” study would be better spent on other local projects.

“If CIB is going to allocate a million dollars, which (it has), for a study on a road, I would just as soon it go to a road that would make a difference in Grand County,” she said.

County council intends to send letter restating its opposition

… This feels like someone’s will is being pushed upon our county, and I believe the majority – a great number of people in our county – do not wish to see a road through the Book Cliffs. That’s why we have this form of government.