County opposes wilderness study area
by David Boyle
Members of the San Juan County Commission approved a letter commenting on a draft forest management plan, heard an update from the extension office and approved a 45-acre rezone as part of their latest meeting.
Members of the county commission approved a letter providing comments on the draft revised land management plan and draft environmental impact statement (EIS) for the Manti-La Sal National Forest at the November 7 meeting.
San Juan County Public Lands Coordinator Nick Sandberg shared the prepared letter with the commission which was written with help from the Utah Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office (PLPCO).
Sandberg outlined that the plan and impact statement are nearing their end phases, following the closure of public comment on November 15 analysis will occur with a record of decision and final plan to follow. From there county feedback would be submitted as a protest rather than a comment.
The draft EIS features four alternatives including Alternative A with no change to plans, Alternative C described as active management with a prescriptive approach and Alternative D described as a passive management with the inclusion of many wilderness areas.
Alternative B is the proposed plan and includes no change to the Monticello-Blanding municipal watershed, vegetation management focused on mechanical treatments and prescribed burns. The alternative also allows for new livestock range improvements and includes the designation of camping sites along some popular routes rather than dispersed camping. Including along the La Sal loop road, Hart Draw, and the Causeway roads as well as North Creek road the mountain road connecting Monticello and Blanding.
Alternative B also recommends six wilderness study areas of over 100,000 acres
Including the Central La Sals, Ruin Canyon, Elk Ridge from the little notch north to Horse mountain, Hammond and Notch Canyons, Arch Canyon, Chippean and Allen Canyons.
Sandberg explained, “These recommendations would mean the Forest Service would manage those areas to preserve wilderness characteristics before Congress designates as wilderness.”
Sandberg also noted some actions within Bears Ears National Monument were deferred until the plan is completed.
The six-page letter the county submitted as public comment includes comments and updates on descriptions and values as well as County reasoning behind its lack of support for any recommendation of a wilderness management unit in the county. Referencing the 1984 Utah Wilderness Act the letter reads in part
“To our knowledge, Congress did not make an authorization for the Forest Service to conduct additional wilderness area evaluations for the Manti la-Sal National Forest. The Forest Service contends it was required to do so by the 2012 Planning Rule. However, this planning rule does not override the 1984 Utah Wilderness Act. Therefore, we contend that wilderness evaluations in this planning effort were unnecessary and not authorized by Congress and any such evaluations and subsequent wilderness recommendations in this planning effort would be contrary to the 1984 Act.”
In attendance at the county commission meeting was Moab/Monticello District Ranger Michael Englehart.
“Many of the statements made in the draft letter are very practical discussions to have about picking out specific language having to do with how restrictive we’re saying certain things. There’s a lot of practical solutions there.”
Englehart explained that the Forest Service legal interpretation is that wilderness is a multiple use that has to be considered. Englehart later added that the preferred Alternative B already holds high-quality wilderness experiences.
“Many folks think it’s like a letter to congress saying hey, we’ve got wilderness here, designate it. It is not that. Instead what we’re saying, San Juan County holds special assets that contribute to people’s experience of solitude and finding their place in nature. I think that’s the better conversation to have. A better place to start that conversation is just recognizing how special San Juan County is for that. Many of our high-ranking recommended wilderness areas are in San Juan County. And many San Juan County residents enjoy those spaces as well. I hear constituents talk about concerns in any future restrictions to management and or development within those places. So it’s something of strong consideration and very meaningful to the counties and absolutely 100-percent committed to continued discourse with that not only with the commission but with San Juan County residents.”
Before approving the county’s draft comments Commissioner Jamie Harvey asked for a change to the county letter. The draft EIS includes the following statement.
“To respect tribal values, plant populations and plant communities of tribal value should be protected during fuels reduction activities.”
While the county staff letter suggested adding “to the extent practicable” to the end of the sentence, Commissioner Harvey requested the ask be removed from the letter.
Members of the commission unanimously approved the comment letter with the recommended change.
In other public lands items the county commission also unanimously approved a resolution of support for a bill Utah Senator Mike Lee is running.
The “Historic Roadways Protection Act” prohibits the use of federal funds to finalize and implement specified travel management plans in Utah until all R.S. 2477 cases have been fully adjudicated and prevents the implementation of the revised travel management plans until the R.S. 2477 cases are adjudicated.
At the meeting members of the commission also heard an update from Reagan Wytsalucy on the Utah State University Extension Services Program.
Wytsalucy outlines a variety of projects the extension office is involved with including working with Watts of Love to provide free handheld lights that can be charged by solar panels to provide up to 120 hours of light. The light can be used as a headlamp, worn on a wrist or other uses. Wytsalucy says as they’ve distributed the lights on the Navajo Nation they’ve heard positive reviews from county residents who may not have other reliable sources of light.
Wytsalucy also highlighted growth in enrollment numbers in youth 4-H programs and other after-school programs in the county. The extension office also offers educational resources including family nights to teach food and nutrition as well as the master gardener course. Members of the commission thanked Wytsalucy for her report as well as the work of the extension office.
Commissioner Harvey reported on a recent meeting at the Red Mesa Chapter between Navajo Department of Transportation and the San Juan County Road department but noted that the Bureau of Indian Affairs was unable to make the meeting.
Harvey did have two updates from the meeting on road issues. The commissioner reported that Elk Petroleum is in a position to maintain their own company roads on county roads. “They are willing to put down magnesium chloride to help solve the dust issues with all the workers going back and forth.”
Harvey said they’ve struggled to maintain the roads they have without proper approvals from either NDOT or BIA. One solution identified would have the county identify Elk Petroleum as a collaborative agent to maintain their roads as part of the county agreement with NDOT.
The other update was related to Navajo Route 25 from the Montezuma Creek towards Phillips Camp and down to Red Mesa Chapter.
“The biggest concern was the turn south of Montezuma just north of the NTUA roads there’s a road back to the bridge. The roads have been chipping and a lot of big holes have been causing risk for drivers.”
Harvey said that NDOT is helping to dig out the right of way and road design of the road to help with the process to move forward towards maintenance fixes.
“As opposed to being just an emotional road support group, I think we made two big achievements there.”
At the meeting members of the commission also approved an interlocal agreement between the county and the city of Monticello to provide election services for $10,500. As well as an interlocal agreement between the county and Southeast Utah Health Department with the county paying the health department $5,600 for its aid in monitoring, managing, and communicating with the public about a harmful algal bloom at Ken’s Lake.
At the meeting, the commission also approved a contract with Hansen Planning Group to create an Economic Mobility Report. The project is part of a $35,000 grant received from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to address an underrepresentation of Native American residents working in government sector jobs.
The project should design a path for Native American residents to become educated on government employment opportunities at an early age in anticipation that students will make a goal of being employed in government roles, thus increasing diversity in leadership roles and careers in the county.
Members of the commission also approved a zone change on 45 acres in Spanish Valley. The zone change from residential district to residential flex was recommended by the planning commission and approved by the county commission.