March 26, 2009

Grand County to join state, Carbon County in fighting SUWA legal complaint

by Craig Bigler
Moab Times-Independent

By a 4-3 vote, the Grand County Council last week chose to intervene in a complaint filed in the U.S. District Court of Washington, D.C. by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and others against the Bureau of Land Management. The complaint alleges the BLM’s new resource management plans do not adequately address air quality issues, issues of climate change, and the impact of ORVs on cultural resources.

The motion to intervene was made by councilman Gene Ciarus and seconded by Ken Ballantyne. They were joined by Pat Holyoak and Chris Baird in the majority vote. Audrey Graham, Chris Conrad, and Bob Greenberg voted against.

According to the resolution the Utah Attorney General will represent Grand County along with the State of Utah and Carbon County. If conflicts arise among those parties, “they shall meet and confer” to resolve those conflicts, the resolution states.

However, the parties may have to retain independent counsel to resolve conflicts. When the potential cost to the county was discussed as a reason to not intervene, Grand County Attorney Happy Morgan said the attorney general has sometimes helped with costs, as he did when the county had to cope with several expensive murder trials in 2004.

Council chairman Greenberg presented a memo he prepared to support his contention that the health, safety, and welfare of county citizens are not threatened by the complaint, as the resolution states, and that there is no need to intervene.

Ciarus said that a confidential memo prepared by Morgan refutes both Greenberg’s memo and his conclusion, especially because it depends on information provided by John Harja, director of the Governor’s Public Lands Policy Coordination Office. “He changes quite a bit,” Ciarus said.

Because Morgan’s memo was submitted to the council as confidential information, a copy was not released to the public.

Ciarus said the county has a vital interest in the court action because the new RMP’s travel plan is identical with the county’s travel plan, which is based on the county’s general plan and calls for new roads for mineral exploration. He expressed concern that if SUWA wins in court the travel plan will be jeopardized.

He also argued that, if SUWA wins its case, then the county’s RS 2477 claims to class D roads will be jeopardized.

According to Harja, Greenberg’s memo states, “the most likely outcome [of the court] is that the parties to the suit will agree to have the BLM amend the portions of the RMP that are in dispute.”

According to Richard Rathbun, assistant Utah Attorney General, there are no RS 2477 issues at stake, Greenberg wrote. He also quoted a disclaimer from the RMP itself: “Nothing in this document is intended to provide evidence bearing on or addressing the validity of any RS 2477 assertions.”

Council member Baird said that he agreed with SUWA “somewhat,” and he worried about potential costs if Grand County’s interests diverge from Carbon County’s. But he said he voted for the resolution because he felt Grand must be part of the process.