The courthouse crowd listens intently Tuesday...
...as Christian Bryner (on left, holding document) reads the county's protest letter to the BLM.
The Bureau of Land Management's intention to gate and lock four county roads on the Tavaputs Plateau has provoked a strong protest from the county commission. And the commission is looking for allies at the state and federal level in what may be a battle ahead.
In a letter hand-delivered to the BLM's Price field office Tuesday, commissioners called the pending closure "an affront to the County Commission, with whom BLM had pledged to coordinate with and deal fairly as cooperators, and to the citizens of Carbon County and the many other persons and entities who are deeply affected by this closure." Copies of the letter are being forwarded to the entire Utah congressional delegation, the governor and lieutenant governor, state legislators representing the county, and the state and national directors of the BLM.
The roads in question are Horse Bench, Cedar Ridge, Jack Canyon and Jack Ridge. All are dirt roads in the area where Bill Barrett Corp. is conducting its massive natural gas field development. The roads also lead to some of the most scenic vistas in the county and have been popular routes for ATVs and four-wheel-drive trucks.
About 30 people showed up at a special commission meeting Tuesday afternoon, where commissioners and their attorney explained what drew the sharp response. Christian Bryner, the commission's attorney, stated that the BLM's unilateral decision to close the roads is a reversal of what the county had understood to be an agreement among the commission, the state, Bill Barrett, the BLM and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
In May 2010, the commission, in a move that allowed full-field development of the West Tavaputs, consented to consider temporary road closures in the project area if - and only if - those closures took place according to state law. The state requires four consecutive weeks of public announcements to be published and posted, followed by a public hearing and a commission decision. Even if one or more roads were to be blocked, the closure could only last for two years or completion of the work, whichever came first.
None of this procedure was followed, Bryner contended, nor was the county consulted in advance. The first and only official word was publication in the Federal Register. He said the the BLM had signed a memorandum of understanding with Bill Barrett that the company would erect and maintain the gates, which contradicted what was understood to be an agreement among all who were involved in the original negotiations.
Commissioners Mike Milovich and John Jones explained to the audience that the county's original agreement to consider temporary closure was an economic decision, a balancing of interests that was not easy to achieve. The creation of hundreds of jobs and the prospect of millions of dollars in mineral lease revenue for the state and county were deemed to be a fair trade for temporary closure, which had been pushed by SUWA.
The county never intended the roads to be closed permanently to vehicle traffic, nor even temporarily to research by institutions of higher learning, nor to hikers and horseback riders, commissioners said. Commissioners also stressed that the county did not and won't abandon its claims of ownership of the roads. (Jae Potter was not a member of the commission at the time of the original agreement, but backed his colleagues in Tuesday's unanimous vote to protest.)
The county's objective in launching its protest is to get the BLM to follow the terms of the agreement and the bureau's own requirements the National Environmental Policy Act to consult local and state governments in setting its Regional Management Plan for land use.
While the roads may eventually be temporarily closed, they will be closed by the county in accordance with state law. Bryner advised members of the audience - just about all of them partisans of ATV and four-wheel-drive access - that the commission's decision will have to be based on evidence presented at the hearing.
One piece of evidence for or against the closures will outweigh all the emotional arguments on either side.