By now, Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz likely know that a majority of Grand County Council members oppose the latest version of their Public Lands Initiative.
Just in case the message hasn’t gotten through to them, though, the progressive-leaning majority fired off a letter this week that outlines their concerns about the congressional proposal to manage federal lands in seven eastern Utah counties.
Council members Chris Baird, Jaylyn Hawks, Mary McGann and Elizabeth Tubbs voted in favor of Baird’s Aug. 16 motion to send the letter, while Ken Ballantyne and Lynn Jackson opposed it. Rory Paxman was absent from the meeting.
The letter says the county cannot back the bill in its current form because it includes major departures from the council’s previously submitted recommendations to Utah’s Republican congressional delegation. However, it suggests that Bishop could win the council’s full support by amending provisions that deal with everything from wilderness and wildlife management to state primacy, or control, over mineral development permitting on federal lands.
McGann said she believes that however the letter is worded, it’s important to let the delegation know that Grand County does not approve of the bill in its current form.
“I think that’s the main goal, so they can’t go up there and try to sell it to the Congress, saying the counties that worked on this like this,” she said.
The county council developed many of its recommendations with the input of local citizens and other stakeholders, and McGann voiced disappointment that the delegation overlooked those proposals.
“It’s like they did their own thing,” she said. “Why did they put us through such a grueling process when their plan was to do their own thing?”
Jackson – a longtime supporter of the initiative process who opposes the current bill – said he doesn’t believe that Bishop or Chaffetz intended to “disavow” any of the seven counties’ wants.
“But we’re just one of the stakeholders,” he said.
When the congressmen finally unveiled their proposal in Washington, D.C., he said, they threw it into a mix that included many “big, powerful interests,” ranging from oil and gas developers to the outdoor recreation industry and conservation groups.
“I’ve seen this happen before, and when this (process) very first started three-and-a-half years ago, this was my concern,” Jackson said. “When a politician comes out and says, ‘Well, we’re going to do what you want,’ then you’re going to take it with a grain of salt.”
Ride With Respect Executive Director Clif Koontz said he didn’t expect the bill to be fully in line with the council’s recommendations.
“So for me, the measure isn’t so much about every single detail,” he said.
For example, Koontz said, proposed wording that called for a no-net loss of off-highway vehicle use would have been great for OHV riders. But going forward, he said, it’s more about the “balance point” that the council previously reached.
“That balance point is debatable, but you came to an agreement on it, and so I would hope that your letters would continue to advocate for that balance point,” he said.
As Koontz sees it, the council’s letter is focused on conservation. He suggested that the “conservation community” has much less interest in going through a difficult legislative process, when it feels there’s a good chance that President Barack Obama will unilaterally declare a 1.9-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument in San Juan County.
“You just have to keep in mind that when you’re hearing from your community, that there is a portion of it that basically isn’t interested in the legislative track right now,” Koontz said. “They’re interested in the administrative track.”
Council ready to move on from PLI discussions
Jackson said that he isn’t happy with the bill as is. Yet after exhaustive council discussions about the initiative, he didn’t see the point of debating the issue any further.
“We discussed the heck out of it today,” Jackson said. “I don’t think anybody got their minds changed, though.”
During an earlier council workshop on Tuesday, Aug. 16, he said that the council’s “new” members are being inconsistent in their criticisms of the bill’s departures from the county’s earlier recommendations.
By Jackson’s estimates, the delegation’s proposal would add somewhere between 50,000 to 80,000 acres of new wilderness that goes beyond those recommendations. A significant minority of voters in the county do not agree with the level of conservation that the bill proposes, Jackson said – a statement that Baird strongly rebuked.
“I’ve knocked on thousands of doors; I’ve run two contested elections,” Baird said. “I wasn’t ‘new’ when I came on here, so don’t talk down to me like that.”
Jackson said he’s only trying to note that 45 percent of the local electorate voted in 2014 for rival candidates who opposed calls for more designated wilderness in Grand County.
“I’m just trying to make the point that there (are) people in this community that don’t agree with this level of conservation,” he said. “You can ignore me if you want – that’s your call.”
Baird, however, suggested that attitudes about public lands protections are perhaps more complex than that.
“I’ve talked with a lot of conservative people that don’t want to see the Book Cliffs Highway, and they don’t want to see tar sands,” he said.
As for the proposed amount of protected acreage, Baird said he believes that the bill would bolster those numbers by designating “new” wilderness areas inside the already-protected boundaries of Arches National Park.
Baird said the bill ignores the council’s recommendations to designate new wilderness in the Mexican Point and Hideout Canyon areas in the Book Cliffs northeast of Moab. At the same time, though, the bill’s authors added proposed wilderness designations in the Fisher Towers and Mary Jane Canyon area near Castle Valley.
“So there was some trading around of wilderness, where they took some away and added some in,” Baird said.
Another provision that concerns Baird could remove protections along one side of the Colorado River Daily section northeast of Moab once existing federal regulations expire.
While that provision remains in place, the bill’s authors removed another proposal that would have prevented future presidents from using their powers under the federal Antiquities Act to declare new national monuments in the area – to Jackson’s dismay.
“There are still people on the council, speaking for myself, who greatly support that,” Jackson said.
But McGann said she was taken aback by Bishop’s move to pull the controversial provision from the PLI, and then reintroduce it as a companion bill.
“I find it insulting in some ways,” McGann said. “Like, ‘You don’t think we know what you’re trying to do?’”
Turning to other provisions, Jackson has voiced mixed feelings about a proposal that would give the State of Utah primacy over the management of mineral development on federal lands in the area.
“It’s sort of been portrayed as … they’re turning this land over to the state to manage, and to me, that’s not the case,” he said.
Yet as he considered the potential advantages to the state primacy concept, Jackson only came up with one: The state would have more staff to review mineral development plans, he said.
In the event that Utah’s congressional delegation can overcome widespread opposition to the idea, Jackson noted that state regulators and mineral developers would still have to comply with every federal law on the books.
Bishop has said that the initiative aims to resolve long-standing conflicts between development of public lands on the one hand, and recreation and conservation on the other. He based the bill on the premise that local government should have a greater say on how those lands are managed, arguing that the status quo isn’t working.
But the bill faces an uncertain future in a presidential election year, and at a time when the Obama administration is reviewing the national monument proposal. And longtime Sierra Club member Wayne Hoskisson of Moab questioned whether Bishop is genuinely committed to passing the initiative at this point.
“If he was really serious about this, he would have done something much earlier,” Hoskisson said.
Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance field attorney Neal Clark said he considers the initiative to be a bad piece of legislation, and he takes seriously any comments that the council sends off to Washington, D.C.
“You have a significant voice in the process,” he said.
Letter asks Bishop to consider amendments to congressional public lands proposal
It’s like they did their own thing … Why did they put us through such a grueling process when their plan was to do their own thing?
To learn more about the Public Lands Initiative, go to www.utahpli.com/.