Comments reveal sharp divisions over management of public lands
by Rudy Herndon
Staff Writer
May 01, 2014 | 5451 views | 0 0 comments | 82 82 recommendations | email to a friend | print
An estimated 340 people filled the Grand Center last week to attend a public meeting on a study committee’s proposed alternatives for long-term public lands designations in Grand County. Faylene Roth, far right, and Mary Beth Fitzburgh took a few minutes before the meeting began to study a map that shows one of the alternatives. Photo by Rudy Herndon
An estimated 340 people filled the Grand Center last week to attend a public meeting on a study committee’s proposed alternatives for long-term public lands designations in Grand County. Faylene Roth, far right, and Mary Beth Fitzburgh took a few minutes before the meeting began to study a map that shows one of the alternatives. Photo by Rudy Herndon
Rep. Rob Bishop built his public lands initiative around the idea that stakeholders across eastern Utah can move beyond past conflicts and find common ground on the issues that have long divided them.

But the gap between those who support greater protections for Grand County’s federal lands and others who want more development of its natural resources appeared to be wide last week as local citizens reviewed potential recommendations the county might submit to Bishop’s office.

The Utah Republican plans to introduce a public lands bill some time this summer, once county officials throughout eastern Utah have finalized their proposals.

Almost 50 citizens among the estimated 340 who crowded into the Grand Center on April 23 weighed in on a Grand County Council committee’s proposed alternatives for long-term federal lands management. And almost none of them gave their unqualified support to any one of the three plans.

Some local citizens encouraged the county to push for legislation that would open more federally administered lands to oil, gas, potash and uranium developers.

“That land is opportunity,” Curtis Wells said.

Darrell Dalton urged the council to scale back the committee’s plans for additional wilderness. He suggested the county should work with the governor and state lawmakers to take back “our” lands, and get rid of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the National Park Service altogether.

Pro-wilderness advocates Emily Stock and Kevin Walker said the committee’s proposals fell short. They argued that the county should take steps to limit development of unique landscapes – including the Spring Canyon Point area – that draw visitors from around the world.

“We don’t want boom and bust followed by toxic air and water,” Stock said.

“This is a crazy place to have oil and gas drilling,” Walker said.

Grand County Council chairman and study committee member Lynn Jackson acknowledged that local residents have a wide range of opinions about long-term public lands management.

The committee’s members are well aware that some people do not agree with its alternatives, he said, but they believe their proposals include something for everyone.

“We think we’ve done good job of spreading these needs and desires and creating some kind of balance,” Jackson said.

The study committee identified about 10 main issues, including proposals to designate new wilderness areas and a national recreation area.

The first of the three alternatives would create 218,000 acres of wilderness, as well as a 118,000-acre national recreation area.

Under the most conservation-friendly proposal, the county would permanently protect 962,000 acres. That amounts to roughly 40 percent of the county’s total land mass, according to Jackson.

Jackson believes that the council’s final recommendations will include a combination of ideas from the three alternatives. But he reiterated that Utah’s congressional delegation is not bound to follow any proposal the county submits.

The county council hasn’t reached the decision phase yet, and conservationists called on the full board to scrap two key recommendations that show up in each of the committee’s alternatives.

Antiquities Act recommendation

The first provision would limit a president’s powers under the federal Antiquities Act to declare new national monuments in Grand County.

Presidents from Teddy Roosevelt to Barack Obama have used the 1906 law to protect vast swathes of land and ocean, including sites that later became Arches and Grand Canyon national parks.

Mike Duncan, who chairs the county’s planning commission, said the area probably wouldn’t have its national parks if past attempts to do away with the Antiquities Act had been successful.

On the other hand, Shad Schmidt said Grand County and Utah already have their share of national parks and monuments. Schmidt suggested that the council should consider the possibility of cutting back on the committee’s recommendations for more protective designations.

Sego Canyon transportation corridor

A second committee recommendation could lead to the development of a proposed transportation corridor through the Book Cliffs’ Sego Canyon, and some environmentalists have called that proposal a “deal killer.”

They worry that a paved road or pipeline through the Book Cliffs would promote the development of “dirty” energy – including tar sands and oil shale – that would contribute to global climate change.

If eastern Utah’s tar sands are developed, Castle Valley resident Jake Burnett fears it would be “game over” for the human race. Noting that the earth is a resilient place, he added, “But we’re going to make it uninhabitable for humans, which the earth will probably think is a good idea.”

Sarah Fields and Logan Hansen cautioned that an expanded route through the area could also harm archeological sites, including ancient petroglyphs and pictographs.

Lifelong county resident Kelly Green said he shares concerns about potential impacts to Sego Canyon’s petroglyphs, but he believes any impacts to those sites could be mitigated.

In the long run, it would be much better if the existing road through the canyon was paved, Green said.

Former Grand County Commissioner Ray Tibbetts called the Book Cliffs a “treasure chest,” and said he welcomes more resource development.

“Let’s use it,” he said. “It’s time we enjoy our resources.”

Access to public lands

Beyond the largely undeveloped Book Cliffs, Tibbetts said he’s “tickled” to see new oil rigs “all over the place.”

He opposed any efforts to create new wilderness areas in the county, noting that roads already exist in many places, including the Spring Canyon Point and the Mineral Bottom areas.

Walker, in turn, used Tibbetts’ words to make the case that much of Grand County will remain open to motorized recreationists and others who fear a potential loss of public access.

Ninety percent of public lands south of the Book Cliffs and Interstate 70 are within one mile of a road, Walker said, and there will still be lots of opportunities to use those lands.

Recommendations leave out La Sal Mountains wilderness

While the committee addressed a host of issues on BLM-administered lands, it did not focus on permanent protections for U.S. Forest Service lands in the La Sal Mountains.

Jackson said the committee was not comfortable with the idea, since the Forest Service has not come up with any specific proposals to designate wilderness in the area.

But the exclusion of those lands alarmed some pro-wilderness speakers, who said the county should act to protect the watershed that feeds Moab’s sole-source aquifer.

Public lands and the economy

In one way or another, activities on public lands have long driven the county’s economy.

Representatives from Moab’s recreation industry suggested that the county needs to move beyond the mining boom-bust cycles of the past.

Chile Pepper Bike Shop owner Tracy Reed said her business depends on clean air and clean water, and she voiced concerns about the effects that further oil and gas development could have on the Moab area.

“I have a very viable business, and I would just hate to see that go away,” she said.

Walker urged the council to look at other communities that have embraced the oil and gas industry, mentioning Odessa, Texas, by name.

“They’re not pleasant places to live,” he said.

Supporters of more intensive natural resource development countered that the county cannot afford to base its economy on the tourist industry alone. Many local residents struggle to survive on minimum-wage salaries, and their kids often go hungry at night, several speakers said.

Local educator Mary Irvin called for a balanced approach that protects some areas, while allowing for development that helps workers who are the backbone of the county’s economy.

Dusty Wilson said area residents struggle to survive on wages paid by tourist-based businesses.

Mineral development, in contrast, is a viable industry that has kept local residents employed for generations, he said.

“You people don’t understand,” Wilson said. “We’re still here. We’re sustainable and we don’t need a babysitter.”

The county will be accepting written public comments on the committee’s alternatives until May 7; emails will not be accepted. Written comments should be sent to: Grand County, Attention: Public Lands, 125 E. Center St., Moab UT 84532.

The county council will review the comments before voting on final recommendations to Bishop’s office and Utah’s congressional delegation.

Copies of the maps outlining each of the committee’s three alternatives can be found on the county’s website at:; the maps have also been posted in the hallway near the west entrance of the Grand County Courthouse.

Watershed council to host public lands initiative meeting

Grand County’s public lands initiative alternatives will be the focus of a May 5 “citizens meeting” at the Moab Arts and Recreation Center, 111 East 100 North.

The Canyonlands Watershed Council and Chris Baird are hosting the event, which is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m.

The group will be providing maps, sharing information and moderating a discussion that will focus on everything from motorized and non-motorized recreation to oil, gas and mining development. Other discussion topics will include the proposed Sego Canyon transportation corridor and conservation-related issues.

For more information, or to request specific discussion topics, call Baird at: 435-260-1431, or email

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