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MANILA, Daggett County — Faced with the loss of nearly $400,000 in federal money next year, Daggett County officials are seeking a land swap between the U.S. Forest Service and the state that could allow private development to take place within the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area.
The Daggett County Land Exchange Selection Committee released its findings Tuesday, identifying Mustang Ridge on the Dutch John side of Flaming Gorge as the top parcel for a possible swap. The 11-member committee appointed by the Daggett County Commission based its decision on criteria that included geographic location, environmental and "buildability" issues, existing infrastructure, community benefits and adverse community issues.
"The Mustang Ridge site received unanimous approval as the site having the most visual appeal and other development benefits needed to capture the attention of developers and investors," the group's report said.
The five other sites surveyed, in order of rank, were: Linwood Bay, Lucerne Valley, Red Canyon, Cedar Springs and Sheep Creek.
All six sites are within the boundaries of the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area.
"There are people that have threatened to sue through every avenue possible to shut this down or slow it down," said Alan Browning, a business owner in Manila and a member of the land exchange selection committee.
We have to capitalize on this lake somehow. We have to create an environment where businesses can succeed.
–- County Commission Chairman Jerry Steglich
"There are some people that don't want any change at all. There are other people that would like to see a Walmart down the street, and then you've got the majority of the people that are sensible and level-headed and understand we'll lose a lot of money from the federal government next year," he added.
In January 2013, Daggett County will receive its final annual stipend payment associated with the 1998 privatization of Dutch John. The town was built by the federal government to house the workers who built Flaming Gorge Dam. Over the years, the stipend has risen to about $380,000.
But any land swap between the Forest Service and SITLA would likely be finalized long after the stipend ends.
“The last administrative exchange we completed with the Forest Service took 14 years,” said SITLA executive director Kevin Carter.
A more expedient path would be to get Congress to authorize the swap, Carter said.
That's something Daggett County commissioners are working on with Sen. Orrin Hatch and Rep. Rob Bishop, according to County Commission Chairman Jerry Steglich. Hatch staffer John Tanner was in Manila earlier this month to listen to citizen concerns and said the senator has been working on returning federal land to state control "for a long time."
The proposal under consideration would involve SITLA trading out about 200 acres of its property within Forest Service boundaries in exchange for like-value land around Flaming Gorge. The state agency would then hold onto the property for lease to a private developer for the construction of a resort or other project.
Negotiations are extremely preliminary, Carter said, and would possibly involve the relinquishment by SITLA of land it owns in Cache County within Forest Service boundaries or in Carbon and Emery counties.
At issue for Daggett County is the determination of where to site a potential resort, which has been part of a public meetings process to solicit input from residents, Carter said.
“The question is where the right place might be to do this,” Carter said.
Browning and others believe the development has to be in close proximity to Flaming Gorge Reservoir for it to have any hope of success.
"The lake is the asset," Browning said. "If you want to draw people in here, you've got to draw them in and involve the lake."
"We have to capitalize on this lake somehow," Steglich added. "We have to create an environment where businesses can succeed."
The county does have about 2,200 acres available for development in the Dutch John area. Getting someone to purchase and build on that land is still the top priority, Steglich said.
And while that could provide a short-term fix for the county's financial problems, commissioners say they need the U.S. government to turn over more land if the county is ever going to be self-sustaining.
Asked how much land that might be, Steglich answered: "All that we can take from the federal government."