News | Room to Roam: Open space and mining clash on the Oquirrh Mountain foothills. 

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A fight is brewing at the edge of the Oquirrh Mountains, pitting open space against mining.

Salt Lake County made its largest open-space purchase ever in November 2009 ,acquiring a 1,700-acre ranch near Herriman. Combined with neighboring public lands, the purchase was to create an open-space parcel of more than 6 square miles. The idea was to replicate for the burgeoning population of western Salt Lake Valley the recreational experience that eastern valley residents enjoy with Mill Creek Canyon. Salt Lake County spent more than one-third of all money it received from a 2006 open-space bond on the purchase only to find it could become a mining pit instead.

Kennecott wants to explore beneath the property for minerals. And if the company finds anything, the law typically gives mining claims precedence over the rights of surface landowners. So, rather than wait to find out if its new western playground will become a mine, the county is moving to protect its investment. Under a 1972 law, the county has petitioned the federal Bureau of Land Management to withdraw lands beneath Rose Canyon Ranch from a mining program and sell the county the mineral rights. Kennecott spokesman Kyle Bennett says the company has not opposed the county’s action.

County leaders say the former Rose Canyon Ranch property is central to a plan for preserving open space in the rapidly developing county. Voters funded the effort two years ago by approving a $24 million bond to purchase open space. Lorna Vogt, program manager for the county’s open-space trust fund, says that as western Salt Lake County foothills are developed, the Rose Canyon Ranch property could end up being the only access point to recreational opportunities of the Oquirrh Mountains for county residents. The BLM has consolidated public lands on the west side of the mountains, in Tooele County, but land on the east side of the Oquirrhs is largely private.

“I love this land,” says Vogt of Rose Canyon, describing canyon bottoms filled with elk, turkey and deer and 7,000-foot elevations offering views of Utah Lake, Mount Timpanogos and all Salt Lake County. The county has agreed to jointly manage the Rose Canyon Ranch property with neighboring BLM land and a county park to form 4,000 acres of continuous public property.

Vogt says the county purchased the land knowing Kennecott was interested in exploring for underground minerals. Kennecott filed paperwork with the BLM weeks before the county purchase. Salt Lake County’s $8.7 million bought the surface land, but most of the underground mineral rights weren’t for sale. Throughout the West, the federal government reserves for itself mineral rights with the specific intention of keeping lands open to mineral exploration. Any company can explore for mineral deposits on such land. That is what Kennecott has asked to do and what the county appears to want to stop in its tracks.

Keeping the Rose Canyon Ranch property open to the pubic is a big deal to county leaders because of development proposals for the westernmost portions of the Salt Lake Valley. Earlier this year, Kennecott postponed plans to blanket its land with new subdivisions as prices of gold, copper and other minerals shot through the roof. But development is certain to occur.

So far, the county’s Open Space Trust Fund has spent just more than half of the $24 million available from the 2006 bond on five land purchases. The $8.7 million Rose Canyon Ranch purchase is by far the largest, both in acres and cost. It was widely hailed by conservation groups.

“It just had everything we were looking for,” says Vogt. “I don’t think we’ll get anything that large or significant again, certainly nothing that is going to be that accessible and that ideally suited for recreation in that part of the county.”

Ultimately, whether Rose Canyon is used for mining or open space will be a judgment call. The BLM must determine the best use of the land, weighing the value of open space against the potential value of below-ground minerals.

While that issue is being decided, the law also places the BLM as mediator in the competing desires of the county and Kennecott for the property.

The federal law under which Kennecott has applied to explore the mining potential of Rose Canyon Ranch allows for “casual use.” For Kennecott, that means removing some brush and stringing special wires on the ground that can map the underground using electrical signals. The mining company had started the process when the county objected to Kennecott crossing county land to access the disputed property. The BLM is now reviewing a plan from Kennecott for additional exploration.

Kennecott spokesman Bennett says the company was not aware of Salt Lake County’s negotiations to buy the ranch until after it applied to explore for minerals. The mining claims were part of routine surveys of the Oquirrhs that Kennecott has pursued for several years.

Bennett says it is unlikely Kennecott will find anything to mine below the county’s land. And, regardless of whether Kennecott is in the business of building houses or mining, the company shares with Salt Lake County the goal of preserving land for public use, he says. “We want to pursue our business but think open space in the area is valuable.”

Vogt, the county’s open-space coordinator, says Salt Lake County will follow federal regulations that balance the interests of the county and Kennecott but adds, “We have made significant public investment in open space and, within the laws, we will protect it.”

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