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Carbon County is threatening to challenge — perhaps through the courts — a key element of the compromise that enabled gas drilling around Nine Mile Canyon.

County commissioners staged a public hearing this week for people angry at the gating of several roads leading from the canyon's eastern reaches onto the West Tavaputs Plateau. Bill Barrett Corp. installed the gates this summer with the Bureau of Land Management's approval.

The closures sprang from a deal in which the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance blessed Barrett's development in exchange for environmental protections, including road closures to protect solitude around Desolation Canyon, into which Nine Mile Creek flows.

"Show me when the people ever had the opportunity to stand up and voice their opinion," County Commissioner John Jones said Thursday. "Some processes were skipped over in these negotiations."

The county hearing gave people that voice, but no clear resolution. If the county were to reopen the roads, it would clash with the BLM's decision approving the gas field. Jones would not say what the county might do, though he added: "That's the reason we have courts."

Several dozen people, nearly all of them opposing the closures, attended the hearing, county officials reported. If commissioners ultimately decide in their favor and seek to reopen the roads, though, their only option may be a lawsuit. The BLM approved the West Tavaputs gas development in 2010 and closed its appeals process that July, with no one having appealed the road closures.

As far as the federal government is concerned, the roads are closed for the 30-year duration of gas extraction.

"There's a Federal Register notice saying these roads are closed," BLM spokesman Mitch Snow said. "It's done."

The roads in question lead to remote areas of Horse Bench, Jack Canyon and Cedar Ridge. The county contends that it owns these roads crossing federal lands, though it has never asserted that right in court. It could do so if it can prove the roads were used by the public historically, before the 1976 passage of the congressional act that now governs BLM lands.

But the county would sue at risk of undoing the compromise that cleared away legal hurdles for the estimated $6 billion gas development.

"We'll cross that bridge when we get there," SUWA attorney Steve Bloch said when asked whether his organization might seek to scuttle the development if the roads reopened. He called the prospect of a county challenge to the closures "a huge escalation."

Off-road vehicle advocates who circulated an e-mail urging people to attend the county hearing said they had no beef with Barrett, but with the environmentalists who pushed for closure. Yet Barrett also is on record supporting the closures as a way to offset its footprint in wild country.

Company President Fred Barrett wrote an opinion piece in Price's Sun Advocate this summer stating that his company requested the gates because other road improvements associated with the gas field will send more people into the territory than had ever visited before.

"With this measure," he wrote, "we are hopeful that the next generation will be able to enjoy what we and Carbon County residents have had the pleasure to experience."

An attorney for the county said the commissioners could also decide to approve the road closures as a means of enabling the gas development, but in so doing assert that only they have the right to do so. Jones, though, made clear that he's troubled by the closures.

"I don't think that we should lock up areas and try to create wilderness," he said.

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