At their regular meeting on Sept. 15, the Grand County Commission discussed their response to a proposal from the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition to build a 35-mile highway through the Book Cliffs area, as well as their comments to the United State Forest Service regarding an updated management plan for the Manti-La Sal National Forest. They also approved funding allocations of mineral lease, PILT, and transient room tax funds to various special service districts following a pre-meeting workshop to discuss those allocations.

Book Cliffs highway

In late August, the commission received a letter from the Bureau of Land Management notifying Grand County of a proposal, made by the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition (SCIC), to pave 35 miles through the Book Cliffs to connect Interstate 70 with Seep Ridge Road in Uintah County. SCIC includes Carbon, Daggett, Duchesne, Emery, San Juan, Sevier, and Uintah counties. The proposal is another iteration of a concept that has been pitched many times since the late 1980s.

Commissioner Jaylyn Hawks documented the history and politics of the road for the previous commission meeting on Sept. 1. She called the cost of the project “outlandish,” with estimates around $150 million. She also pointed out that while the current proposal cited tourism access as the impetus behind the project, previous similar proposals were explicitly designed as aids to extraction industries.

Commissioner Curtis Wells asked the commission to focus on the facts rather than the historical politics of the project at the Sept. 1 meeting.

“It’s absolutely realistic and accurate to say that the highway would surely improve conditions for natural resource development. I don’t think anyone’s trying to hide that,” Wells said, while also claiming, “I don’t think that the label that there’s a tourist interest in the road is false. People are interested in seeing these different areas.”

“From a strictly pragmatic sense, if you’re trying to move people around to where they want to go, there’s quite a bit of merit to it,” Wells said of the project.

He did note, however, that he finds it problematic that other counties are drafting proposals for projects within Grand County without including Grand County representatives.

Other commissioners were staunch in their opposition.

Greg Halliday said he would rather see money spent on improving other hazardous state roads than on building a new one with high maintenance costs.

Hawks presented a letter opposing the project for the commissioners to approve.

“The road proposal—commonly referred to as the Book Cliffs Highway—is located entirely within Grand County and has been consistently opposed by a majority of Grand County citizens for more than three decades,” the letter reads in part. “Grand County does not agree to modification or relinquishment of any ROW [right of way] in whole or in part, affected by the proposed Book Cliffs Highway alignment.”

Longtime Grand County resident Sarah Stocks called in during the Citizen Comment period to express her opposition to the highway. She dismissed the notion that the road is intended to facilitate tourism, pointing out that existing roads already connect relevant tourist destinations. Stocks asserted that the new road is squarely intended to aid fossil fuel development, which she said is the wrong investment of public resources.

“Climate change is devastating the country right now; on top of the pandemic, we have out-of-control wildfires in the west, persistent droughts in the Colorado River basin and record-setting tropical storm seasons in the south. All of this has lasting economic impacts,” she said, asking why the SCIC doesn’t instead propose projects in renewable energy.

Another citizen called in regarding the road proposal, saying, “It feels like this thing is the never-ending nightmare,” referring to repeated attempts over the decades to get such a project underway.

“The dirty extractive industries are on their way out, and this road should be too,” she said.

Trisha Hedin, a resident and a current candidate for Grand County Commission, emailed her thoughts about the project: “Feasibility: extremely difficult. Purpose: there is none. Impact: extreme.”

She offered to lead a field trip highlighting the beauty of the Book Cliffs area and the wildlife habitat that would be impacted by a large-scale road project.

The majority of the commission agreed with those citizens and voted in favor of the letter. Commissioners Curtis Wells and Rory Paxman voted in opposition.

Forest Service Plan

The commission considered a letter submitted by the Motorized Trails Advisory Committee (MTC) listing four suggestions revising the United States Forest Service draft of their Manti-La Sal Forest Management Plan. The draft is not yet available to the public, but Grand County is a cooperating agency with the Forest Service and has the opportunity to comment before the draft goes to the public.

The management plan governs policies and uses on the Manti-La Sal and has not been updated since 1986. For several years, Forest Service personnel have been conducting research and outreach to inform a new draft of the plan.

The MTC’s suggestions ask that the plan allow for more latitude on four specific issues to be addressed in a later, more focused travel management plan: the first relates to trail crossings of groundwater-dependent ecosystems, the second pertains to the zoning of motorized and non-motorized recreation areas, the third addresses trail widths, and the fourth concerns roadless areas and whether those must also be motorless areas, considering some already host motorized trails.

The commission appreciated the MTC’s remarks, presented by MTC Chair Clif Koontz, but felt uncomfortable submitting comments from only one advisory group on county letterhead. Commissioner Evan Clapper suggested soliciting remarks from other relevant county groups and compiling all comments into a single letter from the commission. Koontz was open to that suggestion but enjoined the commission to act quickly.

“As time passes, our ability to influence the ship, so to speak, will diminish,” he warned.

Commissioners rued their negligence in acting on the matter sooner, noting that accessing Forest Service documents has been an obstacle. Clapper moved to postpone approval of the MTC letter to the commission’s first meeting in October and to schedule a workshop before then to include input from other county groups and officials such as Trail Mix, the non-motorized trail committee, the Millcreek Area Watershed Partnership, and the fire warden. Commissioners approved the motion unanimously.

Allocating funding

Commissioners held a pre-meeting workshop to discuss the distribution of money collected through various avenues: mineral lease royalties, state payments-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILT), Forest Service Secure Rural School funds, rural healthcare sales taxes, and transient room taxes (TRT) earmarked for tourism mitigation.

County Administrator Chris Baird prepared a recommendation for allocation between special service districts responsible for health care, emergency medical services, recreation, schools, transportation, and solid waste management. Baird noted that available funding figures for 2020 and 2021 were projections, and he had tried to be conservative in making those estimates. He noted that, as expected, the projections show considerably lower numbers than 2019 totals, mostly due to the coronavirus pandemic and its impacts. Mineral lease funds, he noted, have actually been dropping on a larger timeline than can be explained simply by the coronavirus, but waivers granted to extraction companies during the pandemic have further reduced that revenue for the county.

“Mineral lease is actually trending down, but I’m kind of hoping that we’re at a low point right now because of some of the waivers and reductions in royalties. Hopefully, those will come back eventually,” Baird said.

Overall commissioners agreed with Baird’s recommendation, though McGann pushed for a higher percentage of mineral lease funds to be allocated to the school district. The commission agreed to move 10 percent of those funds from the Recreation Special Service District in Baird’s recommendation to the school district.

The Grand County Commission meets every first and third Tuesday of the month at 4 p.m. Meeting agendas, schedules and instructions on how to participate can be found at www.grandcountyutah.net/134/County-Council

Commission approves letter opposing the project, again

“The Book Cliffs Highway is located entirely within Grand County and has been consistently opposed by a majority of Grand County citizens for more than three decades.”

– letter from Grand County to the BLM