As elected officials, part of our job is to look for economic opportunities to enhance our residents’ ability for jobs, and provide revenue to help pay for county services and infrastructure. This would appear to be such an opportunity.
In my opinion, circumstances have changed since the last Book Cliffs road proposal in 1989, warranting another look on the part of Grand County. The first circumstance relates to our county’s engagement with Congressman Rob Bishop in possible congressional legislation in southeastern Utah that could result in designation of significant areas of federal land in Grand County being formally declared as wilderness. The biggest area of land in our county being considered for this designation is the Book Cliffs. Such permanent designation of those lands would preclude any form of transportation in that area in the future. It seems prudent to take another look prior to recommending this type of long-term wilderness designation.
A second significant changed circumstance involves action taken last year by the state School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) when they entered into an oil and gas agreement with Anadarko Oil allowing the company to explore for and develop a 100,000-plus-acre block of SITLA land in northern Grand County. Grand County has no legal input into issuance of this type of agreement on SITLA lands, and has no legal authority for any activity occurring on those lands. These Grand County SITLA lands, and other oil and gas lands in southern Uintah County, will be developed with or without a direct route to the area from Moab. Transportation for this development will simply come from the Vernal and Grand Junction areas. Even though these SITLA lands are in Grand County, we have extremely limited physical access to the area. As a result, Grand County will receive little benefit from such development. So we can either examine options for sharing in some of the potential economic benefit from development in that area, or we can let such benefits go to residents of the Uintah Basin and the Western Slope of Colorado.
A third changed circumstance is that no one is proposing Grand County fund such a road in the event the studies find it to be technically and economically feasible. In the late 1980s, the proposal for a Book Cliffs road involved it being funded by Grand County. As I recall, preliminary cost estimates for that road were in the $180-200 million range. Grand County has no ability now or in the foreseeable future to incur such costs. If the studies we are proposing show a road to be economically beneficial and technically feasible, a transportation corridor could be congressionally designated via the Bishop lands bill. If no one stepped forward to fund the road, the corridor would simply sit idle. This leaves the option open for the future.
A fourth changed circumstance has been the rapidly growing levels of tourism in our area over the last 25 years. Anyone living in Moab in the late 1980s can tell you that travel tourism has grown by multiple orders of magnitude from then to now. A direct route between Moab and Vernal, connecting our national and state parks with the national park and national recreation area in the Uintah Basin, would offer a significant enhancement to tourists and commercial tour operators who seek Southwestern U.S. regional national park tour loops. This could significantly benefit the recreation economies of both areas. In 1989, they were betting on increased tourism; it is now a reality.
These changed circumstances and other factors persuade me this is not the 1989 Book Cliffs road proposal. In addition to looking at a different and more direct route than the 1989 proposal, there are no proposals on the table to spend Grand County dollars for the study, and certainly no proposal for Grand County to pay for such a road.
It seems we ought to take a final look before we decide to recommend legislative commitments that would preclude any options in the future. I would ask that as we discuss and debate this in the community over the next few weeks and months, citizens maintain a civil decorum, recognizing it’s OK for someone to have differing opinions. And it’s always helpful to have facts before coming to conclusions.
Let’s simply conduct these two studies, allowing all of us to gain further detail to permit more informed discussions and decisions about the future of our county.
Lynn Jackson currently serves as chairman of the Grand County Council. These comments are his own and do not represent the formal view or opinions of the council.