After years of a long and often frustrating struggle to get legislation into the hands of the President of the United States that addresses the San Rafael Swell, Emery County leaders and the Emery County Public Lands Council have decided that perhaps the answer to the problem might well be in the creation of two bills instead of one.
The San Rafael bill was written to address two separate issues; one being the management of public lands in the San Rafael and the other to manage the people who come to visit those public lands. Every time the legislation went before the floor of the House the bill was the focus of intense and often heated debate with environmental groups who did not feel that the bill went far enough in protecting the public land.
Last year members of the public land council began to quietly talk with some members of the environmental community to try and work out some of their differences when it comes to the San Rafael. While no agreement has been reached, the two sides have at least agreed to continue talking. While the land management portion of the bill is still being debated, Emery County leaders felt that perhaps it was time to separate the "people management" portion of the bill and send it out as its own piece of legislation.
"The opposition was always to the land management portion of the bill, but the heritage area bill always suffered the same fate because they were linked," said Val Payne of Emery County Public Lands.
After some discussion the lands council decided to separate the heritage bill and see if it could survive on its own merits. The end result is the San Rafael Western Frontier National Heritage Area, which would be a means by which the county could help manage the scores of people who visit the San Rafael each year.
"The best example I can give of a heritage area is like the travel council who collects a portion of the transient room tax for their operation," said Wes Curtis of the public lands council in a recent meeting. "The money would come from the government to build and create attractions in your heritage area. It would be for something specific, a theme. The money would flow through Congress to the Department of the Interior, through the National Parks Service and straight through them to the local level. The park service doesn't
manage anything. The agency can legally receive and pass money on through a 501(C)3 corporation. We already have the Emery County Foundation which qualifies. We could draw upon other entities for technical advice but there would be no direct management," Curtis said.
Although the heritage area bill would not be an answer for the land management concerns of the San Rafael Swell, it would be an answer for how the people of the county could benefit from the ever growing number of visitors to the county, visitors who are, for the most part, drive by tourists who visit the area but contribute little to nothing to the economy.
"What we're proposing is to help diversify the economy of the county. The decline in the coal industry is happening even quicker than we had surmised," said Payne. "Coalbed methane is a growing factor, but it won't replace the coal industry. People are coming here anyway but the county is deriving no benefit from those windshield tourists, in fact it is at times a burden to the county."
Supporters of the heritage area hope that if the legislation passes it will help to provide a quality tourist experience for visitors while generating a higher income than the standard service industry for Emery County people.
"That's why we talk about destination tourism. Those are the kind of things that will develop economic benefits. There are also artisans here that don't recognize the value of their own creations," Payne said.
The boundaries of the heritage area would be within the county itself and would be overseen by a heritage council, composed of members representing economic development, travel, tourism, recreation, heritage and historic organizations, public and private interests and state and local governments. If the heritage area is signed into law then a heritage plan would be required within three years.
According to the draft legislation the plan requirements would be that it recommends for conservation, funding, management and development of the area; be prepared with public participation; take into consideration existing plans; not supercede or take precedence over existing plans; include descriptions of actions that units of government and private organizations could take to protect, restore, develop, enhance or maintain the resources of the heritage area; and identify existing and potential source of federal and non-federal funding for the area.
The draft version of the bill is currently in the office of Congressman Chris Cannon's staff and legislative council, who will prepare it for introduction before the House. Congressman Cannon has historically been a strong supporter of the San Rafael legislation and, according to Payne, he has voiced his support of the heritage area as well.
Proponents of the heritage area realize that there are many in the county who do not wish to see a large influx of tourists to the area.
But they said the reality is that visitors to the area are coming whether they are wanted or not and after the worldwide attention of the Olympics, the number of visitors to the area are only going to grow. They hope that the heritage area would be a means by which the county could manage tourists, instead of tourists managing the county.
"I think a lot of folks would wish for the good old days as far as visitors to the county, but I don't think there's going to be a return to the old days. The visitors will keep coming," said Payne.