The San Juan County, Utah, commissioners are still deliberating on their input into a federal-lands designation initiative sponsored by Utah Congressmen Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz – three months after it was hoped proposals would be finished.
Five strong proposals for managing federal public lands were developed by local stakeholders and have been available for public analysis since March. An additional Special Management Area proposal fostered with the help of the congressional delegation in Salt Lake City began circulating at county meetings in late May.
That such a request of eight counties, many of them conflicted by federal/ state land-control issues, might conclude with assurances that local level citizens and stakeholders could be and were included in the process is a tall order. Yet one proposal at a time diverse, often rancorous points of view are brought to light and aired in formal submissions to the county officials and state congressional delegation.
After several months of holding public meetings to hear and negotiate the diverse concerns, the commission-appointed San Juan County Lands Council appears to have made some headway during a work session held on June 15. The public meeting resulted in yet another proposal, which will come under the scrutiny of the county commission early in July.
The map representing this latest idea is available to the public at the county’s website (www.sanjuancounty.org) under the tab for Eastern Utah Lands Bill, titled the “June 15, 2015 Proposal.” It is included with alternative proposals A, B, and C, all submitted by the Lands Council.
It hopes this last proposal will help alleviate the gridlock facing the commission as it prepares to vote on a final plan they can support and send to Bishop and Chaffetz for inclusion in the Utah Public Lands Bill, a final compilation of county proposals scheduled to be introduced to Congress earlier this summer.
The San Juan County Lands Council represents a broad spectrum of citizen and stakeholder interests and was charged with developing the proposals for the county at the beginning stages of the initiative more than two years ago. The latest submission comes after none of the previous three proposals (A, B, and C) satisfied enough of the stakeholders.
Although Proposal B did gain some support, the council continued hashing out concerns of citizens, including Native American tribes, conservation nonprofits and natural-resource extraction and business industries in an effort to come to an agreement amenable to all.
During the long, onerous process other independent proposals emerged from stakeholders outside the county purview. Created by special-interest groups such as Diné Bikéyah, a Utah Navajo grassroots organization endorsed in their efforts by Navajo Nation legislation, and Friends of Cedar Mesa, a nonprofit based in Bluff, the formal proposals were posted for comment alongside the county Lands Council maps on the county website.
The range of solutions was complex and stimulated lengthy debate on balancing the rights of indigenous tribes to continue traditional uses of the land, protection of archeological sites, economic development, recreation interests, and the value of wilderness.
In particular, support for the Diné Bikéyah Bear’s Ears National Conservation Area (see Free Press, May 2015) proposal garnered collaborative backing from five national conservation groups and 24 tribes and pueblos with historical ties to the land in southern Utah. The group worked closely with the Utah congressional delegation in Salt Lake City and Washington D.C. to complete and submit all the required mapping and support material.
“I would guess at this point we have met for more than 20 meetings, possibly 22,” said Josh Ewing, director of Friends of Cedar Mesa and a member of the Lands Council. “I‘ve lost track. Most of them were held in Blanding, which is about as midway as possible in the county [due to land configurations riddled with canyon country]. Most of us drove long distances to participate, like Heidi Redd, whose ranch is more than an hour away from Blanding.”
But it may be worth the effort, for now the county has a compromise proposal on the table.
At the June 15 meeting, according to county planner Nick Sandberg, the Lands Council discussed the earlier Special Management Area proposal (see Free Press, June 2015) developed by congressional staff, and modifications to the previous alternatives submitted by the council. From that discussion and taking into account criticism expressed at prior meetings, the council succeeded in an attempt to craft a new version of their plan.
“Most of the new proposal is a modified Alternative B. I would not call it a blend of the Diné Bikéyah Bear’s Ears NCA, but aspects of it are included,” said Sandberg. “We took the Bear’s Ears [area] into the Cedar Mesa NCA and the Forest Service land within the Cedar Mesa NCA boundary that does not have an NCA designation.”
Ewing said many Lands Council members remain uneasy with some of the areas of compromise. “They felt the proposal goes farther than they are comfortable with, but they went ahead with it anyway,” Ewing said.
“I feel there were compromises in those areas noted in Alternative B proposed last year. While the increases at Cedar Mesa are not as significant, there’s more Bear’s Ears NCA and significant NCA increases in Indian Creek. Many folks would have preferred to designate no NCA or wilderness areas.”
Sandberg supplied the Free Press with approximate acreages of certain designations from the June 15 Lands Council proposal: (acreages include Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area lands). More exact acreage figures are expected to be posted on the website map in the first week of July.
The breakout includes 703,000 acres designated as a National Conservation Area; 270,710 acres of wilderness within the NCA; and 242,351 acres of wilderness outside the NCA.
The total wilderness proposed is 513,061 acres, plus 47,116 in the existing Dark Canyon Wilderness.
The grand total of NCAs and wilderness outside of NCAs is 945,351 acres.
The current map on the county website has an error, Sandberg said. “We have noticed one omission that needs to be corrected. The Indian Creek Wilderness Study Area should be shown as a wilderness area within the Indian Creek NCA. We will get that and any other omissions corrected next week when our GIS person returns from leave.”
The Energy Zone Map is a standalone designated area also posted on the website. It is a key influence on all possible designations in the county because it is earmarked for energy development, but it is not included as part of the proposal.
It is instead a result of Utah special legislation signed last March. “It includes most of the eastern half of the county,” said Sandberg. “There is some overlap with the June 15 proposal and so there will have to be some boundary adjustments.”
Although the latest proposal has not been endorsed by the commission, Sandberg said the commission is including it while deliberating on all the proposals.
Ewing said he would be surprised if they did not consider it. “From my point of view they are most likely to take this last proposal very seriously.”
“Matching areas of concern with areas of influence,” is something many citizens see as a fundamental flaw, explained San Juan County Commission Chairman Phil Lyman, because of the “reality when dealing with the federal government.”
“It has control,” Lyman said. “It doesn’t make sense to try to assert control over something which the federal government says the county has no control.”
At the same time, doing nothing and opening the door for President Obama to possibly designate a national monument based on the Diné Bikéyah Bear’s Ears proposal looms as a threat over all the theoretical discussions.
“Anyway, we’re not throwing in the towel,” Lyman said in a phone interview with the Free Press. “The commission will definitely do another public meeting. We’re not holding up the process because other counties are not finished either.
“But the process seems like a shifting landscape after so much attacking has gone on prior to our finalizing a proposal we hope to send to Bishop. The idea [of the initiative] was to come up with an amicable proposal and every time we put something out there, we are attacked. It feels like a no-win for the county and that creates some of the hesitancy people sense, and the delay.
“It might be the end of July before that [public meeting] happens.” He hopes to post the date on the county website.