Commission also seeks conservation status for potentially a quarter of the county

Grand County Commissioners are developing plans for a bill they hope Republican Rep. John Curtis will sponsor that could expand Arches National Park eastward and bolster conservation status of many other public lands in the county.

The park expansion would convert land currently managed by the Bureau of Land Management and Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration into land managed by the National Park System. That would mean no oil and gas development and likely no private developments.

Grand County Commissioners Kevin Walker, Sarah Stock, and Jacques Hadler, who are leading the charge to develop the plans, have also discussed creating protections for the Book Cliffs that would create an additional barrier to a proposed highway that would connect Grand and Uintah counties.

More specifically, the commission is seeking to designate the Book Cliffs and four other BLM areas in Grand County National Conservation Areas. The designation currently governs 23 areas in the U.S. The most recent designation was made in 2019 for the John Wesley Powell conservation area, in the Vernal Field Office.

Conservation status has typically meant withdrawal from mineral leasing eligibility. It also typically means a reduction in motorized vehicle use on the land, but the commissioners said they can also contain motorized vehicle emphasis areas.

Arches expansion

In the background of many photos of Delicate Arch are snow-capped La Sal Mountains. In the foreground is the rock featured on many Utah license plates. Between the two, visible in the photos, is Dry Mesa.

Dry Mesa became a part of Arches National Monument in 1969, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a presidential proclamation that added roughly 50,000 acres to the monument.

Two years later, President Richard Nixon signed Public Law 92-155, converting the national monument into a national park and reducing the boundaries by roughly 10,000 acres. The removed area was Dry Mesa.

Dry Mesa, now BLM land, currently has no wilderness or special conservation status and is eligible for oil and gas leases, discretion over which lies primarily with the Department of the Interior.

As for the shorter term, President Joe Biden established a nationwide moratorium on oil and gas lease sales in January, and as such, Dry Mesa does not face the immediate possibility of drilling.

As for the longer term, Grand County commissioners are looking at adding Dry Mesa back to Arches, as well as new areas around Salt Valley and Lost Springs. The expansion would add between 19,000 to 20,000 acres to the park, according to Walt Dabney, the former superintendent of the Southeast Utah Group of national parks and monuments.

Dabney presented the proposal, which came from the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association, to the Grand County Commission during its Aug. 17 meeting. At the invitation of Commissioner Walker, Dabney laid out the history of the Arches boundaries and went over what existing developments exist in the area.

According to Dabney, a 1998 expansion of Arches National Park to include much of Lost Springs, which is north of Delicate Arch, did not fully protect the whole of the canyon, apparently at the behest of a BLM permittee who had grazing interests in the vicinity.

Dabney said that the area is no longer used, so it would “make complete sense” to protect the remainder of the canyon as part of the park. Dabney also advocated an expansion of the boundary around Salt Valley to follow geological formations, in lieu of the boxy boundaries that currently exist.

Preserving BLM land

During its meeting earlier in August, the commission also discussed the possibility of seeking National Conservation Area status for public lands in Grand County. The preliminary map presented by Commissioner Walker provided a rough outline for five areas, together comprising roughly a third of the county’s total land.

The five areas Walker presented are as follows:

The La Sals, in the southeast corner of the county and possibly expanding into San Juan County;

The Moab Canyons, which includes Mill Creek but also expands to Castle Valley and the northern end of Arches National Park;

The Colorado and Dolores rivers and canyons vicinity, which stretches from east of Arches National Park to north of Westwater;

Labyrinth Canyon and side canyons, which would round out conservation or park status for the southern third of the county, expanding from the west boundary of the proposed Moab Canyons area to the west county line;

And the Book Cliffs, which would stretch from the west county ine nearly to the east county line, encompassing the area south of the Uintah and Ouray Tribal Lands and a vast expanse of adjacent SITLA lands.

Conservation status for these areas, he said, would bolster regulations over roads, trails and transportation; open up federal funds for managing the area; withdraw the lands from mineral leasing; and more.

Obtaining conservation status for the areas would likely require the federal government to swap some lands with SITLA, which owns islands of property interspersed in the sea of federal lands around the county and state.

This means that Grand County will likely need to develop a land swapping strategy, choosing the areas where it prefers to focus new SITLA properties in exchange for conserving the old properties.

Many of the SITLA lands, particularly those in the Book Cliffs, are potentially oil-rich, increasing the potential price the federal government would have to pay to conserve them.