After nearly an hour of public comments mostly asking for "no action" on a proposed federal wetlands plan, the Utah Reclamation, Mitigation and Conservation commission a subagency of the Department of the Interior unanimously voted to proceed with the 4,800-acre project.
At a meeting last week, Commissioner Brad Barber broke a minutelong silence after a call for a motion and whispered his motion to accept the proposed alternative. After half a minute's further whispering a second was found. Commissioners' mouths barely moved when Chairwoman Jody Williams called for "all in favor," and she declared the motion passed.
"I'd like to move forward," Barber said after the vote. "I care very much about the concerns that have occurred here today and we'll do our very best to make sure those are addressed."
The project has raised controversy partly because of residents' fears that it would increase mosquito habitat and the risk of West Nile virus.
Of approximately 25 Myton and Fort Duchesne-area residents who attended the meeting at the Wallace F. Bennett Federal Building in Salt Lake City, one spoke in favor of the project. Harley Cambridge, the Ute Indian Tribe Wetlands Project coordinator, briefly reported that the Tribal Business Committee "supports this project."
Commission director Mike Weland gave a slide presentation highlighting previous wetlands projects it has funded and helped plan on the Wasatch Front and near Jordanelle Reservoir. He said the commission has always contracted with an outside entity, such as an environmental organization, to build and manage the projects, though they remain under commission oversight.
"This is no different from any of those projects," Weland said.
This led a number of visitors to publicly state what has only been said off the record before that they don't believe the Tribal Business Committee will carry out its obligations. Several of the 18 visitors who spoke pointed to a pattern of failed tribal enterprises, including others funded by the same legislation being used to justify the wetlands project.Rancher Jay O'Driscoll, who saw the tribe's federally funded feed lot fail this spring, was the most blunt in his remarks.
Pointing to visiting tribe member Helen Wash, O'Driscoll said, "I'd sooner trust her, a tribal member, her word, over the business committee. I've seen it, I know how they work, and it sucks."
Wash said she too lacked confidence that the business committee would use use federal money according to an as-yet-unwritten contract for controlling mosquitoes once the 4,800-acre swamp project is built."Who knows what they'll do with that money," Wash said. "But they won't use it for that."
Visiting tribe member Helen Wash said the issue has become contentious enough among tribal members that a recall referendum is being planned.
Referring to reports that the tribe may receive $12.5 million over 20 years to manage the project, Wash said, "$12 million is not worth having someone die from West Nile virus."
Kathleen Cooper, mayor of Myton, a small town adjoining much of the planned swamp expansion, said a third of her 590 residents are tribal members and "those are my people. None of us want this. They all know this is a stupid idea."
Cooper read from the 1992 Central Utah Project Completion Act, which created the mitigation commission and authorized $32.5 million for various projects on tribal land to make up for the loss of farm income and expected wildlife habitat. The legislation is tied to a 1965 agreement with the Department of the Interior for the tribe to defer development of more than 60,000 acre-feet of irrigation water rights while the Central Utah Water Conservancy District concentrated on building CUP's Bonneville Unit, which brought Uinta Basin water to the Wasatch Front. "What the act talks about is a project to develop big game hunting, fisheries and camp grounds," Cooper said, holding up a copy of the CUPCA. "But somehow our government has gone out and duped them (the tribe) into thinking that a wetland, a swamp, is going to be better." Cooper reminded the commission that Ron Groves, the tribe's wildlife director, has over several years repeatedly said in public that the tribe would prefer a cash settlement rather than a wetland project. After the commission approved the project, Commissioner Jim Karpowitz, representing the Utah Division of Wildlife Services, said visitors had identified three areas of worry: the taking of private lands, mosquito habitat and groundwater issues."We have analyzed all of those issues very carefully, and planned accordingly," Barber said.Commissioner Don Christiansen said, "It isn't an easy thing to make these decisions, but that's the responsibility I have. ... I've listened to what you had to say. Your concerns are my concerns."