Concerns and questions regarding the proposed San Rafael Swell national monument took center stage at a series of meetings conducted last week.
The Emery County Public Lands Council sponsored two town meetings, one in Green River on Friday night and the other on Saturday morning at Emery High School.
The recently established Castle Country Rural Alliance sponsored a separate town meeting on Saturday night at Canyon View Junior High in Huntington.
The proposal to have the president declare the San Rafael Swell a national monument was first suggested during a public lands council meeting in January.
During the meeting, council members and Emery County commissioners suggested the monument proposal as an alternative to years of failed efforts to pass legislation to protect local interests in the San Rafael.
Twice before, Emery County has tried unsuccessfully to pass legislation concerning the San Rafael only to have the efforts fail due to heavy opposition by environmental groups.
The first failed attempt was in 1998 and the second in 2000. After the last failure, the lands council and Emery County leadership stepped back and tried to regroup.
At the January meeting, it was suggested that, with a new administration in the White House expressing interest in local initiatives, the monument declaration might be Emery County's last, best chance to do something to protect the area's interests in the San Rafael Swell.
During Gov. Mike Leavitt's state of the state address, he mentioned the monument proposal.
Following the governor's announcement , a storm of questions, accusations and confusion erupted regarding the proposal, with a large number of people fearing that the monument was a "done deal" and there was no going back.
At the meetings last Friday and Saturday, county leadership and the lands council focused on dispelling the beliefs, emphasizing that the gatherings were the beginning of the process to solicit public input on how a monument proposal should be worded, or if a monument proposal should be drafted at all.
Dennis Worwood, chairman of the public lands council, detailed to the a previous county initiatives to address the San Rafael Swell and what had finally led the Emery officials to propose a national monument.
Approximately 50 people attended the meeting in Green River and another 60 were present at the gathering in Castle Dale.
Guest speaker were Dick Manus, retired United States Bureau of Land Management official. Mangus explained the recently published BLM travel plan for the San Rafael.
Access to the San Rafael Swell is a subject of strong emotion on all sides. At the meeting, Emery Commissioner Randy Johnson pointed out that the county had asked for and been granted an extension of the public comment period for the BLM travel plan.
Kathleen Truman of the Utah Travel Council also spoke to the audience at the gathering about the planning process for the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.
Truman served as one of the Utah members in the planning process for that monument.
After hearing from the guest speakers, the audience was divided into groups so public comments could be heard.
Public comments ranged from support, to caution to outrage about the proposal.
The most common theme seemed to be that more information was needed before a decision was made.
Others voiced the fear that a monument designation was the last step down a slippery slope to a national park designation and that no matter what the county people proposed it would be warped into unrecognizable form by the time the national process was complete.
"When you try something new, be prepared for it to blow up in your face and come back and eat you alive," said Wade Jensen, who indicated that he was the last sheepherder on the Swell.
After trying to work in good faith with government agencies , Jensen said he was faced with having to move his livestock herds off the desert.
While some local residents expressed support of the San Rafael monument, other people in attendance at the meeting feared that the proposal would end up hurting the county in the long run and lead to even more restrictions in the future.
"If you designate it, they will come. If they come you will have impact. If you have impact you will have restrictions," said Kelly Austin of Ferron.
After the break-out sessions, the citizens who attended the meeting met back in the auditorium where all of the solicited comments were shared.
Additional meetings on the monument proposal will be conducted in the near future, with dates and times to be announced.
The featured speakers for the Castle Country Rural Alliance included Jim Parker, who worked for the BLM on and off for 30 years as Utah state director, national associate and national assistant director for the federal agency.
Rick Crawford from Garfield spoke about the struggles his county has gone through.
Dave Skinner, who works for Montanans for Multiple Use and specializes in helping grassroots groups work with federal land managers, also addressed the people in attendance at the public gathering.
The gathering was well-attended, with more than 150 people present.
Paul Conover started the meeting with a brief overview of what the organization hopes to accomplish. He described the group as a "work in progress."
After the speakers expressed their thoughts and ideas on the proposed monument as well as other issues, a comment period followed and a number of questions were brought up and addressed.
The general message the speakers presented to the audience was for the residents to become involved in the process and let their voices be heard in the matter.