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Tavaputs road closures called 'extortion'

Public commenter Alan Peterson tells commissioners that if they decide to close country roads on the West Tavaputs that they should at least make sure county workers install county gates with county locks on the four roads afffected.

Sun Advocate associate editor

The public is not happy about the closing of four dirt roads on the West Tavaputs Plateau. At least, that's what speakers told the county commission at Wednesday's public hearing on the matter.

The overwhelming majority of those who spoke declared that they have been denied recreational access to public lands they have enjoyed for generations. And they especially did not appreciate how this happened.

"Extortion" was a word commonly used as citizen after citizen stood at the lectern. The extortion they spoke of was their view of the agreement the county, state, and federal governments made with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance to allow Bill Barrett Corp.'s full-field natural gas development on the plateau.

The thinking was that SUWA would tie up the development with lawsuits if it didn't get its way, a repeat of what had happened to the Lila Canyon Mine, which was stalled for nearly a decade.

"It's all about deals being made to keep it out of court," asserted Alan Peterson, who was speaking for the Sage Riders Club. Others agreed. Peterson told commissioners that if they decide the road closures are in the best interest of the land and the public, then at least county employees should install county gates with county locks.

As of now, the gates are in place as a result of an order from the Bureau of Land Management to Bill Barrett. The county has already protested the move in a letter to the BLM and other federal and state officials, alleging that the bureau has unilaterally broken the agreement. In 2010, the county consented to the compromise if - and only if - any road closures would be conducted according to state law.

What that meant was that the county, which asserts ownership of the roads, would make the decision after following the rules that state had set out. By holding Wednesday's hearing, the commission was complying with those rules - and it was establishing a public record that it considers the roads to belong to the county.

Several commenters agreed the compromise was a tough one for the county to make: a heritage of public access on side of the balance, with jobs, energy production and millions and millions of dollars in country revenue on the other.

"It is difficult to see the struggles the county has made in determining the costs and benefits," commented Bill Barrett spokesman Jim Felton said. But he added that in addition to enabling the company to treble its production in two years, development has also made the general area more accessible than before through new and improved roads.

Nevertheless, it is these particular gated roads that have provided access to specific areas cherished by those who protested the closure. "I feel this is taking away part of my life," declared Kevin Rowley in an emotional comment. He admitted he crossed one of the gates, entering land now limited to vehicle access by the BLM, the company and scientific researchers.

Hikers can still enter the land, but that doesn't mean much to a few old-timers who noted that their joints won't carry them very far any more.

When asked by Commissioner Jae Potter, "What do you value most, economic development or cultural value of the land?," Steve Rowley replied, "All of it."

The BLM had no representatives at the hearing, but last year the bureau's Utah director, Juan Palma, was asked a similar question on a visit ot Price. Multiple use is the goal for public lands, but you can't have multiple use on every acre, he replied.

Commissioner Mike Milovich noted the irony of a situation in which Carbon County, whose residents have been mining, drilling and ranching the land for more than century, still has lands that people consider pristine wilderness.

The question the commission now faces is if continued access by recreational drivers is harming or will harm the land. According to many speakers at the hearing, there is no harm. There is little if any archaeological significance on top of the plateau because all the prehistoric settlements are in the canyons, they said.

As far as damage to the land, Tom McCourt of East Carbon, commented that the BLM itself does more damage to the landscape by chaining junipers and pinyon pine than ATV users do. (Chaining means hitching a heavy chain to two bulldozers that drive though a wooded area and rip the trees out of the ground. It is a practice to remove shade cover and allow native grasses and flowering plants to recover.)

While the turnout for the hearing was impressive, the public has had opportunities over the years to take part in the decision-making process. BBC spokesman Felton reminded listeners that the company had placed advertisements during the evironmental impact assessment process encouraging the public to become involved.

Following the same line of reasoning, Price Mayor Joe Piccolo, speaking toward the end of the hearing, told the audience and commission that public involvement should begin early on in any process.

"Until they take something away from us, we're quiet," he stated.

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