Council members spar over chairman’s letter accusing BLM of closed-door meetings on master leasing plan process
by Charli Engelhorn
staff writer
Jul 05, 2012 | 1986 views | 0 0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Raised voices and heated discussions were the scene at Tuesday evening’s Grand County Council meeting. Council members sparred over whether a letter sent to four state and local Bureau of Land Management officials violated council policy because it was not approved by the council, and in some instances, not provided to council members before it was sent, according to county officials.

On June 26, council chairman, Gene Ciarus, sent a letter to Juan Palma, BLM Utah state director, Shelley Smith, Canyon Country district manager, Jeffrey Smith, Moab field office manager, and Brent Northrup, master leasing plan (MLP) project manager. The contents of the letter concerned the MLP process proposed by the BLM last winter as part of a federal mandate to reevaluate the relationship between oil and gas leasing and recreational activities on public lands and the manner in which to move forward with further mineral development and potash exploration permits.

In February, Northrup gave a presentation to the council outlining the process for the MLP, which could possibly require changes to the resource management plans of both Grand and San Juan counties. He asked the council to become a cooperating agency, and the council agreed.

However, based on information from sources he was unwilling to divulge at Tuesday evening’s meeting, Ciarus drafted a tersely worded letter that accused BLM officials of holding “closed-door” discussions with representatives of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) and devising pre-determined MLPs on public lands located in the Moab resource management plan area that correlate with areas in SUWA’s proposed redrock wilderness act.

Ciarus wrote, “We have also learned that these [master leasing plans] will likely lead to regulations and restrictions of oil and gas leasing and development that conflict with the corresponding provisions of the approved 2008 BLM Moab Field Office [resource management plan]… The idea that closed door meetings with the wilderness lobby could drive pre-determined dismantling of that which took several years to put together… is of great concern.”

Among other requests, Ciarus’ letter asks the BLM to “pull back” on the proposed MLP for the Moab area and to “start over from the beginning” on the MLP process while giving state and local cooperating agencies more opportunity for “proper input, involvement, cooperation and coordination.”

Ciarus concludes his letter with the threat that, “Grand County will vigorously oppose such amendment as being inconsistent with county local plans as well as State statute,” if greater restrictions to oil and gas development or the creation of more wilderness in the 2008 management plan is the outcome of the master leasing plan process.

Some council members said they were upset with the content of the letter and the fact that they received it after it was sent and without any supporting evidence.

“The first thing is that this is completely disregarding all aspects of the county’s policies and procedures… and to send this out without the county’s approval is very disrespectful,” council member Chris Baird told Ciarus in a raised voice. “This is a divisively political issue… and you took it upon yourself to send this letter knowing that, and to feign ignorance is ridiculous.”

Baird further accused Ciarus of jumping on the “bandwagon” with the rest of rural Utah in attacking the BLM. Baird pointed out that Grand County has worked as a cooperating agency with the BLM and has a better relationship with the agency than any other county in the state.

Baird also lauded the importance of recreational activities to the local economy and the importance of maintaining that aspect of land use.

“The payback is what keeps people alive and how they pay their bills… When you quantify the value of these trails and areas over the years, it is millions of dollars… and the MLP process is designed to allow oil and mining to coexist and deal with any conflicts,” Baird said.

Baird said “everything in this letter is unsubstantiated… [and] this council has no information whatsoever.” He called Ciarus’ letter “a dig at the only viable relationship between rural Utah and the BLM. To send this letter is against the county and the law.”

Ciarus called Baird’s accusations “assumptions” and said he didn’t agree with Baird’s statements. Admitting that his “verbiage might have been a little strong,” Ciarus also said he refused to “dignify a lot of the answers because the allegations that [he] did this maliciously are totally false.”

Council member Jim Nyland said he supported Ciarus and his letter, noting his own experiences while attending the master leasing plan meetings.

“I know a lot of people make their living off of recreation… but the issue that keeps coming up is that they want to base everything on recreation and tourism. They don’t really want to talk about extraction of natural resources,” Nyland said. “There’s no way we are going to be able to pay the bills and take care of everything we need to take care of with recreation and tourism.”

Nyland said he saw the problem as being two sides “butting heads” and unable to make it work. He said it is not right that some people are making a living off of public lands and want to restrict others from doing the same.

In order to reach a resolution on the issue, council member Audrey Graham drafted a second letter to be sent to the same BLM officials and to others who were previously copied on Ciarus’ letter, including Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, the Utah Congressional Delegation, and the Utah Association of Counties.

In her letter, Graham apologizes to the BLM officials for the haste with which Ciarus’ letter was sent. Graham’s letter also addresses the concern over whether a meeting took place with SUWA representatives. She states that if such meetings did, in fact, take place, it would be a breach of the agreement signed by the county and the BLM in February. Graham’s letter requests a meeting for further discussion.

“We have our issues, and we work through our issues, and that has been going on with the county and BLM for years and years,” Graham said. “For this type of thing to go through with just apparently having the [council chairman] checking on it through email with only some of the council members… is against the laws of the council.”

The council voted 5-2 to approve Graham’s letter, which, in the opening sentence, rescinds Ciarus’ letter. Ciarus and Nyland voted against the measure.

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