Grand County Commissioners and community leaders are working on a proposal for a public lands bill they hope will be considered by Congress in the next few years.

Grand County residents are strongly encouraged to give their input on the proposal through a portal on the county’s website. Meanwhile, the commission continues to weigh in on specific local land management decisions as they arise: At its Oct. 19 meeting, commissioners considered three letters expressing the body’s position on the Manti-La Sal National Forest management plan update, the Bureau of Land Management’s Travel Management Plan update for the Labyrinth Rims/Gemini Bridges area, and the Mill Creek Canyon hiking area.

Public lands bill

Visitation continues to increase in Moab, and residents and community leaders have observed a corresponding increase in conflicts between user groups as well as negative impacts to the landscape.

“In the early 1990s, there were very few restrictions for motorized travel—you could drive anywhere you wanted to,” said Commissioner Kevin Walker. “But things were pretty good back then because of the lower visitation. Some of my favorite hiking and running routes were jeep roads. You would see tire tracks, but you would rarely see a jeep.”

With more people, user groups are finding it more difficult to co-exist, and the landscape is also suffering. The BLM manages many of the public recreation areas surrounding Moab, and lacks adequate local staffing and resources to meet the growing need for management and agency presence around Moab.

“For years, the conversation with the BLM has been, ‘We’d like to do a better job, but we don’t have enough people because we don’t have enough dollars,’” said Walker.

The recently passed federal John D. Dingell Conservation, Management and Recreation Act included policy drafted by Emery County leaders and stakeholders, which established several wilderness areas, scenic rivers, and the San Rafael Swell Recreation Area. That accomplishment, as well as the growing need to address visitation in the area, prompted community leaders to initiate a locally generated public lands proposal in Grand County.

Grand County commissioners Walker, Jacques Hadler and Sarah Stock are leading the effort. Their strategy involves the establishment of new management designations in popular areas around Moab, which they hope will channel more BLM funding to the area.

“For me, this is mostly about procuring enough resources to manage and offset the explosion in recreation we’re seeing on public land in the county,” said Hadler. “ The BLM are vastly underfunded and understaffed to be able to deal with numbers we see here and you can very much tell by the impact on the land. Our visitors notice this as well and it hurts our brand when they don’t get the experience they were hoping for due to excessive crowding, noise and other human impact.”

The BLM cannot comment on legislative efforts but can provide data on visitation increases. Visit counts across the area managed by the Moab BLM Field Office tallied 2,499,289 visits in 2016; data from September of this year shows 3,142,210 visits so far in 2021.

The current tentative proposal calls for the establishment of five National Conservation Areas, or NCAs, which are part of the National Landscape Conservation System.

Under the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, the National Landscape Conservation System was established to “conserve, protect, and restore nationally significant landscapes that have outstanding cultural, ecological, and scientific values for the benefit of current and future generations.”

Once an NCA is designated, the BLM reviews management policies and considers existing uses within its boundaries. Some of those uses may be suspended or modified. According to BLM policy, the NCA will have a designated manager and the agency will conduct outreach to “inform the public about and build a sense of local stewardship for the designation.”

The NCA designation does not preclude specific recreational activities or existing mining or extraction rights, though it does usually prohibit future mineral leases and mining claims. The county’s five proposed NCAs would be in the Book Cliffs, heavily visited canyons close to Moab, in Green River canyons, the Colorado River and Dolores River canyons, and in the La Sal Mountains. The proposal also includes a small expansion of Arches National Park. Former National Park Service Superintendent and Grand County resident Walt Dabney gave a presentation on that proposed expansion at a previous commission meeting.

The NCA designation opens new BLM funding sources, elected officials say, meaning the BLM could hire more staff and devote more resources to managing use in these popular areas.

Public comment on the proposal will be accepted throughout the process. Comments are now being accepted via a portal on the county’s website; click on the “Public Lands Bill” tab at the top of the home page to access it.

Previous efforts

Grand County undertook a similar effort in 2014, as part of the Utah Public Lands Initiative, at the behest of then-Utah Congressman Rob Bishop. The process at that time was fraught with contention between those who wanted to keep trails and roads open and those who wanted a more conservation-oriented approach. Stock remembers her involvement at that time—she said she worked to keep a transportation corridor out of the Book Cliffs, a project that continued to surface in the 2014 proposal and is still on the agenda of an inter-county coalition, though it’s largely opposed in Grand County. The final Utah Public Lands Initiative stalled in congress in 2016. Some locals who had been involved in the process felt it had already been undercut by a 2015 push by Bishop to transfer federal lands in Utah to state ownership.

Community leaders hope the current political climate will be more conducive to a successful initiative. The John D. Dingell Act offers an example.

“Congressman John Curtis considers the Emery County Bill a success and would like to work with us to do something similar in Grand County,” noted Hadler, referring to Grand County’s congressional representative.

Walker hopes the first draft of the proposal will be done by the end of the year. He noted that passing federal legislation can be a “long, windy process”; officials don’t anticipate the proposal becoming policy for at least a few years. Stock said she hopes the Grand County proposal might get bundled with federal legislation attached to President Joe Biden’s “30 by 30” agenda, which aims to protect 30% of the nation’s lands and waters by 2030.

“Maybe our plan can fit in with some of the national initiatives,” she said.

Ongoing management

In the meantime, the county commission is making an effort to be involved in ongoing management decisions for public lands in the Moab area. At its Oct. 19 meeting, the commission considered several letters regarding public land management. One is addressed to the Manti-La Sal National Forest, which manages the La Sal Mountains above Moab, and contains comments on the forest’s proposed revised management plan. The letter asks that drilling for oil and gas be prohibited in the Moab Geographic area and that water resources be protected; asks that the agency consider a proposed “conservation alternative” in its management options; supports strategies to reduce greenhouse gases; supports certain wilderness recommendations; and supports the maintenance of roadless areas in the forest.

Clif Koontz, chair of the county’s Motorized Trails Advisory Committee and director of the nonprofit motorized trails advocacy group Ride with Respect, called into the meeting to oppose the letter, saying the conservation alternative would be too burdensome for the Forest Service to add and that it wouldn’t meet the agency’s mandate to serve multiple uses. Koontz also said the proposed wilderness areas are too extensive, and that the county’s stance is weighted too much in favor of non-motorized users.

The commission approved the letter 5-2. Commissioner Evan Clapper opposed the motion, and Hadler abstained; they expressed concerns about supporting the potential limiting of certain recreational uses in the Manti-La Sal National Forest, and that the head of a relevant county committee had issues with the county’s comments.

The commission unanimously approved a letter to the Moab Field Officer Manager for the BLM, Nicollee Gaddis-Wyatt, asking for meaningful engagement between the BLM and the county regarding a Travel Management Plan for the Labyrinth Rims/Gemini Bridges area. The county had asked to be a cooperating agency in the planning process, and commissioners felt they were not being involved as deeply as they should in the planning process.

“We were… surprised to see preliminary alternative maps released to the public without any opportunity to engage beforehand as a cooperating agency in the process,” the letter says. “Many of our concerns with the preliminary alternatives should have been discussed prior to public release of the documents, and we request additional time for meaningful engagement as a cooperating agency prior to the development of the draft EA [Environmental Assessment] alternatives.”

The commission postponed a discussion on another letter addressed to Gaddis-Wyatt supporting recommendations for the Mill Creek Canyon Powerdam and Highland trailhead areas made by the Mill Creek Community Collaborative. The MCCC is a group of community and agency stakeholders. They conducted surveys, discussed options, drafted alternatives, and collected feedback, ultimately offering a set of recommendations for the consideration of the Moab City Council and the Grand County Commission, as well as the BLM.

Founder and Director of local nonprofit Moab Solutions Sara Melnicoff called in to ask the commission to wait before approving the letter supporting the MCCC recommendations. Melnicoff has spent 18 years working on conservation in Mill Creek Canyon, and she opposes the MCCC recommendations. Moab Solutions will offer an alternative recommendation, called “A+,” and Melnicoff asked that the commission wait for that recommendation to be submitted.

“We think our plan would make everyone happy and also serve the purpose of protecting the canyon,” said Melnicoff.

Walker said he needed more time to study the recommendations before voting on whether to support them; the commission voted unanimously to postpone discussion of the letter until the next meeting.

The commission also approved a letter to the Utah State Director for the US Department of the Interior, Greg Sheehan, expressing the county’s continuing opposition to the Book Cliffs Highway. The Seven County Infrastructure Coalition (which includes Carbon, Daggett, Duchesne, Emery, San Juan, Sevier, and Uintah counties) has initiated an Environmental Impact Statement for the project, which would be located entirely within Grand County. Grand County opposes the project because, the letter states, it has minimal benefits, would burden Grand County with maintenance and safety costs, would damage valuable wildlife habitat, and would disturb private property owners in the area.