Mobile Menu - OpenMobile Menu - Closed

IN THE NEWS: Utah county strikes major deal on wilderness, property swaps

October 23, 2014
By Phil Taylor, E&E News

A small county in northeast Utah has reached a big agreement on the future management of its public lands, offering a spark to a sweeping legislative effort being led by Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah).

Bishop today was scheduled to join Daggett County Commissioner Jerry Steglich, conservationists, county and state officials, and an off-highway vehicle advocate at the Utah State Capitol to tout a deal to designate more than 80,000 acres of wilderness, swap roughly 12,000 acres of federal and state lands, resolve road claims, and bolster OHV access, among other steps.

It marked a major step forward for Bishop's effort to craft a bill balancing conservation, recreation and development on millions of acres of federal land in eastern Utah (Greenwire, Oct. 22, 2013).

Daggett, the smallest of the counties involved, was the last to join Bishop's effort and the first out of the gate with a solution for its public lands.

"What we are trying to do here is put Daggett out as a template or a microcosm," Bishop toldGreenwire this morning.

Bishop said he hopes to introduce a draft multicounty bill by January. By that time, he will likely be chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, a position he said would allow him to expedite the bill through the House.

Today's deal, which is summarized in a three-page list of principles, was also endorsed by Gov. Gary Herbert (R), whose office yesterday called it a "pathbreaking model" for other counties working with Bishop.

Conservationists applauded the deal.

"We'd love to see this exported to other counties," said Tim Peterson, Utah wildlands program manager for the Grand Canyon Trust, who attended today's event. "We hope it will create some momentum."

The Daggett deal would add nearly 50,000 acres of Forest Service land to the High Uintas Wilderness, a massive east-west expanse of snow-covered mountains dotted with trout-filled lakes and some 400 miles of streams.

It would also designate about 33,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management wilderness including the sandstone ridges of the Diamond Breaks wilderness study area near Browns Park, as well as a 31,000-acre BLM conservation area and 14 miles of the Green River as wild and scenic. The agencies would also acquire 13,000 acres of state trust lands trapped within the conservation areas and along the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area.

For Utah and Daggett, the deal would transfer more than 11,000 acres of federal lands to the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) -- including energy-rich areas and 6,800 acres at the junction of U.S. 191 and State Highway 44 that Daggett would like to see developed as a summer and winter resort, with possible residences and a ski hill. Other land transactions would support a shooting range, landfill site and power substation in Daggett, while allowing an association of cabin owners to acquire the Forest Service lands under their homes.

"We are trying to garner new interests and other activities that will bring more people to our beautiful county," Daggett County Commissioner Karen Perry told The Salt Lake Tribune this week.

Perry could not be reached yesterday, and Steglich declined to comment ahead of today's event.

The deal also promotes all-terrain vehicle trails in Dutch John Canyon and Sears Canyon and would release about 3,000 acres of federal lands from wilderness management. Moreover, conservationists would ask sponsors in Congress to remove Daggett County from the America's Red Rock Wilderness Act, a bill that calls for 9 million acres of wilderness in Utah but that is opposed by the Utah delegation.

Lastly, the deal includes some resolution to Daggett's road claims under the Civil War-era law known as R.S. 2477, which, until its repeal in 1976, gave settlers the right to build roads and acquire rights of way over federal lands not yet reserved from public use. Utah and its counties are trying to retroactively prove R.S. 2477 claims over some 12,000 roads spanning about 36,000 miles.

The Daggett deal would maintain access for road claims that are outside the proposed conservation areas and currently open to motorized use. The state and county would relinquish claims to roads within the conservation areas.

Stakeholders agreed to an "appropriate administrative process" to resolve the remaining claims.

"The boundaries are good; the management language is good," said Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the primary proponent of the Red Rock bill, which has fought the R.S. 2477 claims in court. "A fair amount of trust and goodwill has been built."

Other environmental groups represented at the Capitol this morning were the Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club and Trout Unlimited. Groene said the Natural Resources Defense Council has also backed the plan.

Also scheduled to appear at today's event were John Andrews, associate director of SITLA; Mark Ward, counsel for the Utah Association of Counties; and Mike Swenson, who led the Utah Shared Access Alliance, a motorized recreation advocacy group that backs Utah's bid to take over federal lands.

'Yeoman's work'

Stakeholders took field trips over the spring and summer to Spirit Lake in the Uintas and Browns Park, a remote mountain valley that follows the Green and was a notorious hideout for outlaws, including Butch Cassidy.

Peterson, of the Grand Canyon Trust, said credit for the agreement is due to Casey Snider, a Bishop staffer who formerly worked for Trout Unlimited and previously lived in Daggett.

"He did yeoman's work," said Bishop, who hired Snider a few months ago.

Daggett's early success can be attributed, in part, to its small size -- its population is just over 1,000 -- and its unique set of public lands challenges, Bishop said. Just 4 percent of land in Daggett is privately held, which poses economic and fiscal challenges, Bishop said.

Swapping federal and state trust lands will benefit Utah schoolchildren and provide new county revenue, Bishop said. Conservationists say it will ensure that state lands within roadless areas are not developed.

But reaching similar agreement in other eastern Utah counties, including Uintah, Grand, San Juan and Emery -- where there are more competing interests for wilderness, motorized recreation, oil and gas, potash and oil sands -- remains a herculean task.

Battlegrounds include Hatch Point, a pinyon-and-juniper plateau overlooking Canyonlands National Park near Moab that is coveted by wilderness advocates as well as developers of potash, an ingredient used in fertilizer.

Stakeholders must strike a tough compromise on which of millions of acres will be designated as wilderness and which will be released or designated for multiple use, including drilling and ATV use. SUWA has identified roughly 6 million acres in the Red Rock bill.

Bishop's bill must also resolve Utah's and counties' road claims under R.S. 2477, a labor-intensive task given the sheer number of claims at stake. Without a resolution, the law could give local officials control over routes through primitive federal lands, potentially blowing up a legislative deal with greens.