Utah’s congressional delegation still can’t count on the Grand County Council to support its Public Lands Initiative.
In fact, local government opposition to the proposed bill has only grown, as longtime initiative supporter and Grand County Council member Lynn Jackson spoke out this week against the latest version of the plan.
“In its current form, I don’t support it, either, but probably for some completely different reasons (than other council members),” Jackson told the council during its regular meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 2.
While the council’s majority favors greater protections of federal lands in Grand County, Jackson said he’s concerned that recent additions to the bill could create more regulatory uncertainty, instead of resolving decades-old conflicts over land management.
In particular, Jackson questioned new wording in the bill that would give the State of Utah “primacy,” or primary permitting authority, over federal lands in the seven-county Public Lands Initiative (PLI) region. That proposal replaces a controversial provision in the draft bill that would have designated energy development zones in the region.
Jackson said there is a precedent for the concept of state primacy. But if that provision becomes law, he said the state would have to prove that it could manage the land in accordance with federal rules and regulations.
“I don’t know if it would work (well) or not,” Jackson said. “From the experience I’ve had on the industry side, it could just mean another layer of bureaucracy you’ve got to go through, which won’t help anybody (in the industry).”
As recently as last month, Jackson spoke up in support of the Public Lands Initiative concept, and he’s been an integral part of the process since he joined the council in 2013.
When a majority of former council members rejected calls for more wilderness and public lands protections, Jackson cautioned that their stance would doom the bill’s chances in Congress. Over the course of numerous council workshops on the initiative, he urged them to reconsider their opposition to recommendations that conservationists and environmental groups could support.
The council’s official position shifted dramatically when current members took office in 2015, and for more than a year, Jackson defended the bill’s authors, calling their give-and-take approach to public lands management the “nature of compromise.”
After his about-face this week, Grand County Council chair Elizabeth Tubbs quipped that she “just loves to find common ground” with him.
All jokes aside, though, Tubbs suggested that she cannot support the bill that Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz, both R-Utah, unveiled last month.
“If anything, I am more opposed to what is in there now than I was with the first draft,” she said.
Tubbs and other council members were scheduled to vote on a letter that Grand County Council member Chris Baird drafted to the delegation, outlining the county’s specific concerns about the proposal. But they ultimately postponed that vote until their next meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 16, giving them more time to review the latest version of the PLI.
“I would like to personally understand it better so that I could talk about it .. so that I could be educated and have a reasonable understanding of it,” Grand County Council member Mary McGann said.
“We have our initial recommendations, but there’s some new stuff in here,” Jackson added.
Among that “new stuff,” Jackson said he found a reference to a Colorado River National Conservation Area that he “never heard of” before. He said he wants to understand how it relates to the Wild and Scenic River withdrawal regulations that currently protect the area.
From the council’s perspective, perhaps the biggest sticking point right now is the primacy provision, which the bill’s authors dubbed “Long-Term Energy Development Certainty in Utah.”
Baird said the plan would give the state primacy over the permitting process to regulate oil, gas and mining activities within the seven-county region. In response, his letter maintains that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) should retain that control.
Tubbs said her first reaction to the controversial provision is that she doesn’t want any part of it.
“It wasn’t in the original bill, and now they’ve stuck it in there,” she said.
Bishop touts local control; council says bill departs from county proposals
Bishop said in a statement that PLI was designed from the get-go to solve problems that have led to acrimony among public lands stakeholders over the years. It would do so, he said, by conserving lands that Congress deems “worthy” of conservation, while allowing economic and recreational opportunities for all Utahns.
The status quo does not provide that, Bishop said.
He maintains that Utah will always be a “public lands state,” but said the federal government simply owns too much land to manage it effectively from Washington, D.C.
“The question is how those public lands are managed,” Bishop said. “That’s where local government has the advantage. PLI takes that premise and builds it to a reality.”
Yet for all of Bishop’s talk about more local control over public lands, some council members said his bill actually limits their voice, marking “major departures” from their original recommendations to the delegation.
Among other things, the bill’s plan for a new national conservation area northeast of Moab would eliminate the entire northwest side of the Colorado River Daily boating section, which is currently protected by law. It would also shrink the size of the proposed Mill Creek and William Grandstaff wilderness areas, and it would expand motorized uses in the upper stretches of Ten Mile Canyon.
The PLI itself no longer prevents presidents from using their powers under the federal Antiquities Act to declare new national monuments in the area, but a companion bill would do just that.
All in all, Tubbs questioned why the council should delve into the plan in detail again, unless members agree that they want to go with something other than their initial recommendations to the delegation.
Still, she plans to join a special council workshop on the latest version of the PLI, although she said that any discussion they have is unlikely to sway her views on the proposal.
“My personal opinion is that any changes that have been made in this, as I understand it now … (are) not going to alter my opinion that it in its current form, this is not something that I would support,” she said.
Jackson says he doesn’t support latest version of public lands bill
If anything, I am more opposed to what is in there now than I was with the first draft.