Grand County Council chairman Lynn Jackson says he has the sense that a majority of council members would now call on Congress to designate up to 390,000 acres of wilderness within the county’s boundaries.
That’s a step up from May 16, when five of the council’s seven members suggested they would not back any recommendations that go beyond a 1999 plan for 251,000 acres of wilderness.
Although the council hasn’t voted to formalize any recommendations at this point, Jackson hailed its willingness to consider more acreage as “a big move.”
“We’re getting closer here, guys,” he said during a discussion-only July 15 workshop on Rep. Rob Bishop’s public lands initiative.
Jackson previously worked alongside council members Rory Paxman and Jim Nyland on various recommendations for Bishop’s consideration. But the full council only began to discuss their ideas in May, and it hasn’t reached a consensus on several key issues, including a proposal to create a national recreation area near Moab.
Bishop’s office is now hoping to finish a draft version of the bill later this summer, but does not plan to formalize any legislation until early winter, according to Bishop’s communications director Melissa Subbotin.
The public lands initiative aims to balance conservation and development on federally managed lands across much of eastern Utah, and Bishop has said that wilderness can be used as a negotiating tool to promote development in less-sensitive areas.
The 390,000-acre figure that Jackson mentioned is still less than half as much wilderness as the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance is seeking in Grand County. But Sue Bellagamba, a regional director with The Nature Conservancy, suggested that the council could “horse trade” its support for permanent protections of some areas if it wants to keep the Big Flat area near Dead Horse Point State Park open to development.
“If we give something up, we get something someplace else, and so if it’s critically important that we have mineral development in that area, maybe look elsewhere to expand some conservation boundaries or something like that,” Bellagamba said.
Jackson said he believes that Bellagamba is “absolutely dead-on.”
“If we want a little more leeway and flexibility in the Big Flat area, we’ve got to consider giving up a little bit more in other areas, and that would be one area where we could give a little bit more,” he said.
Paxman also voiced support for Bellagamba’s idea.
“That’s what I’ve been telling you all along,” he told Jackson. “We need to do some horse trading.”
Much of that “horse trading” could focus on efforts to carve out the proposed boundaries of a new national recreation area in Grand County.
On May 16, a majority of council members said they opposed the idea.
Since then, however, Grand County Council member Gene Ciarus has taken the lead on efforts to map out key recreation focus areas.
Potential designations around Big Flat remain one sticking point between Ciarus and representatives from Moab’s outdoor recreation industry. But Ciarus said he sees broad support for protecting other recreation areas, including Fisher Towers, Amasa Back, Bar M and Klondike.
“I think we’re pretty much in agreement except for those two little areas [around Big Flat],” Ciarus said.
Jackson said that those who pay close attention to local public lands issues have always known that the Big Flat and Gemini Bridges areas were a “problem child,” given the potential for conflicting uses there.
“It’s where we have high recreation; it’s also where we have mineral resources left in this county to be developed,” he said.
However, he suggested that ongoing efforts to resolve those challenges shouldn’t stand in the council’s way if it’s ready to submit recommendations to Bishop’s office.
“I want to plant that seed that we could move some of this forward with the message that we still have work to do in this particular area,” Jackson said.
Other potential recommendations could still undergo major changes before they reach Congress.
In particular, Jackson anticipates that Bishop’s bill will not include a controversial proposal to set aside land for an “enhanced transportation corridor” through Sego Canyon.
For the time being, Jackson wants to leave the proposal in place. But he predicts that a planned feasibility study of the corridor and an alternate route through Hay Canyon will find that the Sego route is not viable.
The study is not expected to be finished until Dec. 31 at the earliest, and if the results match his prediction, Jackson said that any references to the Sego Canyon corridor could be removed at that time.
Jackson is also suggesting that the council should modify an equally controversial proposal that would prevent presidents from using the federal Antiquities Act of 1906 to create new national monuments in Grand County.
As an alternative, he’s recommending that Congress should instead place timing and size limitations on those powers.
“If we go back and request a complete Antiquities Act exclusion, all of this other good work could fall apart on us,” Jackson said. “But I’m really concerned, too, that if we go back and do all of this hard work with no mention or no type of limitation, that we could get another big old chunk of monument, and to me, on principle, that’s not the right way to do things.”
Grand County Council vice chairwoman Elizabeth Tubbs said she has concerns that Antiquities Act designations would leave the community without a voice in the process.
But she believes that any decision to move forward with Jackson’s recommendations would be a big one for seven council members to make.
“I feel like that’s something that should go back to the community to decide,” Tubbs said. “If that’s what they want, then that’s fine; if that’s what they don’t want, then that’s fine.”