Council members voted 5-0 on Aug. 5 to postpone further discussion of a proposed interlocal agreement that would kick-start the request for study proposals process.
Councilman Ken Ballantyne was absent from the meeting, and Jim Nyland was not present for the council’s vote.
Officials in Uintah and Duchesne counties, among other entities, are seeking the Grand’s help in pursuing a feasibility study of a route that could connect the Uintah Basin with Interstate 70.
The Grand County Transportation Special Service District has already committed $10,000 in mineral lease funding toward a study that would examine the pros and cons of building new roads or pipelines through Sego and Hay canyons. But Grand County Attorney Andrew Fitzgerald has not signed off on the proposed study agreement ahead of a final council vote, and that inaction appeared to irritate council member Gene Ciarus.
“The only thing I can say is, some county attorney has got to get off his [rear end], and I don’t care if that’s put in the paper,” Ciarus said.
Grand County Council chairman Lynn Jackson said he shares Ciarus’ concerns.
“We seem to have a very cumbersome and complicated system for legal review for our council,” he said.
Jackson said he recognizes that an elected county attorney’s primary responsibilities center around prosecutions of court cases.
“But this is somewhat problematic, and I think it needs to be addressed,” he said.
According to Jackson, Fitzgerald has had access to the proposed agreement — along with a separate proposal to create a seven-county economic development coalition — for a month. During that time, he’s been told on multiple occasions that the council feels a need to take action on both items, Jackson said.
Fitzgerald was not present to respond. But he told The Times-Independent on Aug. 6 that he doesn’t take Ciarus’ remarks personally.
“I just want Gene to know that I love him,” he said.
Fitzgerald said he doesn’t see any problems with the proposed study agreement.
“It’s a good document,” he said.
But his office wants to make sure that it can explain the potential ramifications of the economic development coalition proposal before it signs off on either document, he said.
Local resident Joe Sorensen praised the county attorney’s work on both of the proposed agreements.
“I think he’s done a great job in trying to put together his study so he can give the county — us — a good legal opinion,” Sorensen said. “I think our attorney should be here for this discussion, as well. I don’t think we’re ready to move forward, and I’m all for keeping that corridor closed.”
Proposals to build a highway through the rugged and largely wild Book Cliffs have been around in one form or another for more than two decades now, and Sorensen said he’s been against them throughout that time.
“Opening that up — I think we need to value our environment a little bit more. I think our resources are worth a lot when we’re not harvesting them,” he said.
Jackson countered that any mention of developing a new Book Cliffs corridor is premature at this point.
If the council ultimately approves the interlocal agreement, Jackson said it would simply join other study participants to submit a request for feasibility study proposals.
“It’s not making any decision to build a road,” he said.
In the past, Jackson has said that he believes any feasibility studies of a Book Cliffs corridor will show that it would be cost-prohibitive and impractical to build a new route through Sego Canyon.
This week, former council member and Canyonlands Watershed Council Executive Director Chris Baird identified several potential challenges to the route, including a crossing in East Willow Creek Canyon.
According to Baird, the trip requires a drop of 1,445 feet in the span of roughly 1.5 miles.
On one side of the ridge above the creek, the average slope is almost 37 percent; it’s almost 27 percent on the other side, according to Baird. In comparison, Baird noted that Mineral Bottom Road drops slightly less than 1,000 feet at an average slope of 20 percent.
“It really effectively eliminates this [Sego Canyon] route as a major thoroughfare, because it would be far too treacherous [and] far too slow, and I think that most of the council probably is aware of that,” he said.
Jackson said he’s seen a draft version of a Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) route analysis, and he said it does not include any mention of a corridor that goes down East Willow Creek Canyon.
Be that as it may, Baird said a gate on the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation currently blocks access toward Seep Ridge Road and the Uintah Basin. In order to get around the gate, the road would have to be re-routed through Hell’s Hole, which is just as imposing as it sounds, according to Baird.
“It’s not as deep as East Willow Creek crossing, but it’s steeper. It’s almost cliffs on both sides,” he said. “So it’s kind of out of the question also to just go around the Ute territory. You would have to get permission from them for this road to be possible also.”
Beyond the potential geographic obstacles he sees to a new route through Sego Canyon, Baird has much broader concerns about any proposal that promotes the development of tar sands and oil shale projects in the Book Cliffs.
“There’s hundreds of thousands of acres up there in the stratus identified, and there are tens of thousands of acres already leased,” he said. “And that’s something that crosses the line in my opinion, when you talk about annihilating tens — if not hundreds of thousands of acres.”