Group sees room for improvement in public lands initiative proposals
by Rudy Herndon
Staff Writer
May 08, 2014 | 1533 views | 0 0 comments | 56 56 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The Grand County Council’s chairman is vowing to fine-tune a study committee’s recommendations for new wilderness, after a nonprofit group reported that all three proposals would close two popular trails to mountain bikers.

Canyonlands Watershed Council Executive Director Chris Baird informed local residents this week that the proposals, as written, would eliminate bicycle access through the lower sections of the famed Porcupine Rim Trail. Mountain bikers would also be barred from the Hidden Valley Trail, Baird said during a May 5 meeting regarding the county study committee’s alternatives for long-term public land-use designations.

Grand County Council chairman and study committee member Lynn Jackson was unable to attend the meeting, which was hosted by Baird and the Canyonlands Watershed Council. But he told The Times-Independent that the study committee did not knowingly recommend that the two trails should be blocked off.

“If that [is] the case, it certainly wasn’t the intent,” Jackson said May 6. “We’re not going to close those trails.”

The county council is expected to finalize its recommended public land-use designations in June, and Jackson said it will do its best to fix any glitches, based on the public comments it receives.

“If there’s a problem, then we’ll adjust that,” he said.

At the same time, Jackson said it’s “highly, highly unlikely” that the council will approve any one of the three alternatives as written.

He expects that any final council recommendations on Rep. Rob Bishop’s public lands initiative will be a combination of the three study committee proposals. The council will likely break the proposals down into 15 or 20 separate items, and then vote on each one before it submits a proposal to Bishop’s office, he said.

If any discrepancies remain after Bishop introduces his broader eastern Utah public lands bill in the U.S. House of Representatives, Jackson anticipates that Congress will address them.

In their current form, at least, two of the study committee’s recommendations follow the boundaries of existing U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) wilderness study areas near Moab.

The Porcupine Rim Trail, which also serves as the lower section of the Whole Enchilada Trail, lies just inside the edge of the Negro Bill Canyon Wilderness Study Area. Southwest of Moab, the Hidden Valley Trail runs through the Behind the Rocks Wilderness Study Area.

If Congress formally designates the two areas as wilderness, the agency’s current Resource Management Plan states that they would be closed to mechanized uses, according to Lisa Bryant, the BLM’s assistant field office manager in Moab.

However, Congress could always designate exceptions or grandfather existing uses into any bill it passes, and the BLM will comply with those legislative directives, Bryant said.

The overall question of trail access was just one of many issues that Baird addressed during the May 5 meeting at the Moab Arts and Recreation Center.

He also touched on a controversial study committee recommendation to set aside land for a proposed transportation corridor through the Book Cliffs’ Sego Canyon.

Baird told audience members that the proposal is designed to benefit the energy industry, including the developers of proposed tar sands and oil shale projects.

“It’s for sure that this is for industry – that’s what this road is for,” he said.

Supporters of the idea have said that energy projects in the Book Cliffs area would bring new jobs and revenues to the county. But Baird came up with his own resource development scenarios for the area, and based on his estimates, neither Grand County nor its public schools stand to benefit much from any of the various plans.

While the debates over the Sego Canyon transportation corridor and tar sands development are likely to continue, Baird addressed other issues that could help the county council finalize other public land-use recommendations.

For one thing, he noted that the study committee’s proposal to designate 5,200 acres of wilderness on the Utah-Colorado state line is unnecessary.

In fact, he said, that land is already protected as part of the Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness.

Nearly all of the 75,580-acre wilderness lies on the Colorado side of the border, but the western periphery runs across the state line into Grand County.

Jackson, in response, said the study committee took a broad look at proposed protections for the Westwater area when it developed maps for each of its proposed alternatives.

“These were very generalized, landscape-level maps,” Jackson said. “If that 5,200 acres is already wilderness, then I guess we wouldn’t need to re-designate that, would we?”

Looking at the study committee’s overall recommendations, Baird questioned the accuracy of estimated protections for the county’s public lands.

In the past, Jackson has said the most conservation-friendly proposal would protect about 962,000 acres, or 40 percent of the county’s total land mass.

Baird, however, maintains that Jackson came up with that figure in part by counting some wilderness areas twice. Moreover, he noted that protections would not apply to state or private lands inside a proposed national recreation area’s boundaries.

Jackson said the numbers he previously cited are “ballpark” figures.

A computer came up with the estimated acreage, but it didn’t break everything down by land ownership patterns, he said.

“I didn’t do a detailed evaluation of those numbers,” Jackson said. “I just assumed the [Geographic Information System] guys were right.”

While Jackson missed out on the chance to address the May 5 meeting, he ultimately welcomed the additional opportunity for county residents to remain involved in the public lands initiative.

“If it helps them in their suggestions and their recommendations, then that’s great,” he said.

The county council is planning to hold a May 16 workshop on the study committee’s alternatives. Members of the public are welcome to attend the workshop, but the council will not be accepting public comments at the time, Jackson said.

For more information about the Canyonlands Watershed Council’s analysis of the study committee’s alternatives, go to: www.farcountry.org. Copies of the maps outlining each of the committee’s three alternatives can be found on the county’s website at: www.grandcountyutah.net/landuse.htm.

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