Government leaving Utah counties out of land talks, official says

The U.S. Department of Justice and the Department of the Interior are negotiating with an environmental organization about how to manage public land in eastern Utah.

County officials in the affected land, however, say they’ve been left out of the talks.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance last year sued the Bureau of Land Management, seeking to reverse portions of the resource-management plans for lands managed by the BLM’s Moab, Price and Vernal offices.

A spokesman for the Utah office of the BLM, Mitch Snow, said he could confirm settlement discussions between the Justice Department and the wilderness organization, but he declined to elaborate.

Uintah County Commissioner Mike McKee said county officials in eastern Utah had not been contacted in connection with the talks, even though they filed briefs as intervenors in the lawsuits “to support the plans we spent seven years developing.”

The counties also have what is called “cooperating agency status” with the BLM in the drafting of the management plans.

“We have never been brought in” to the settlement talks, McKee said. “We have been left out of the process, totally out of the process.”

At issue for the sparsely populated region is the local economy and jobs of people who work in the energy and recreation industries, McKee said.

A spokesman for Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance didn’t return calls for comment Friday.

The wilderness alliance filed suit in 2009 to halt the management plans in the wake of criticism of the BLM issuing 77 oil and gas leases near national parks and other scenic areas of eastern Utah.

The alliance now is challenging all of the management plans drawn up by the federal agency for the land.

Among the criticisms of the plans were a lack of emphasis on wilderness study areas, wild and scenic rivers, and areas of critical environmental concern, as well as failure to conduct quantitative air quality modeling for ozone and other criteria pollutants regulated under the Clean Air Act.

McKee said he is disappointed the BLM is failing to defend its work in putting together the plans.

“You’d think the BLM would stand behind the RMPs they spent millions and millions of dollars developing,” McKee said.


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