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To some, it might look like a land grab.

Emery County and Utah State Parks leaders are collaborating on a plan to designate about one-tenth of the San Rafael Swell — 130,000 acres — as a new "heritage" park linked to an expansion of Goblin Valley.

The change would shift management of the area from the federal Bureau of Land Management to the state. And for the first time, Utahns would have to pay entrance fees at the Swell.

Emery County officials insist the idea is about protecting a valuable resource and its traditional uses as visitation to the unique geological formation explodes.

"This is not a federal versus state battle," said county Public Lands Director Ray Petersen. "This is about getting the best public land management and making good decisions about managing the resources."

The county has been trying to capture the recreation opportunities — and preserve current mining and ranching uses — of the San Rafael Swell for almost two decades, but earlier efforts fizzled.

Now it seems Congressman Rob Bishop's Public Lands Initiative has provided the momentum to do something. Bishop has asked state parks leaders to compile a "wish list" of new state park designations and expansions. The San Rafael-Goblin Valley combo is on that list.

The proposal also coincides with a larger state campaign to take control of federal lands and turn them over to the state.

Efforts to preserve the San Rafael Swell date back to at least to 1998 when a resolution from the Utah Legislature and governor urged Congress and President Bill Clinton to create the San Rafael Swell National Heritage/Conservation Area. But nothing happened. More recent attempts to protect the Swell also flopped.

But increasing visitation to the area is forcing the issue.

The BLM manages the San Rafael Swell Special Recreation Management Area — the largest such unit in the state at approximately 1.2 million acres — which had roughly 478,000 visitors last year.

And visits to Goblin Valley on the Swell's doorstep have more than doubled in the past four years, from 46,270 in 2010 to 109,593 in 2014, according to Tim Smith, Utah State Parks southeast region director. Many of the same people who visit the state park also trek to nearby Little Wild Horse slot canyon in the Swell.

Those growing visitor numbers have put pressure on BLM lands with dispersed camping and off-highway vehicle use. Crowding at Little Wild Horse, particularly on busy holiday weekends, has led to suggestions of a permit system to limit the number of people in the canyon and cars in the small parking area.

"This is about protecting the resource and providing a quality experience. There are days when there are 200 people in Little Wild Horse," Petersen said. "When you have that many people, strangers really, shoulder-to-shoulder, is it really a wilderness experience?"

Recreation in the Swell also has changed with the times. Traditional hiking and off-highway riding has increased, but so has canyoneering, a combination of hiking and rock climbing.

And more people are getting injured and lost, increasing demand for law enforcement, search and rescue and emergency medical crews.

State Parks staffers at Goblin Valley frequently are called out and typically the first to arrive. The closest members of the Emery County Search and Rescue are about 50 miles away in Green River. And the BLM office managing the San Rafael Swell is in Price, more than 100 miles away.

If the proposed 130,000-acre "Western Heritage and Historic Mining" area — as it has been called through the years — comes to fruition, Smith says the staff at Goblin would likely be doubled and a welcome booth would probably be placed on the Goblin Valley Road near its start on the Temple Wash Road.

The proposed park would stretch to the west of the Goblin Valley Road/Little Wild Horse Canyon area and incorporate popular OHV riding areas, dispersed BLM camping areas and the San Rafael Reef Wilderness Study Area.

Despite the anti-federal sentiment embodied in 2012 legislation demanding the government turn over 30 million acres of federal land to the state, Emery County leaders say their proposal is different. It's less adversarial, more cooperative. The BLM is looped in the process.

"We have been looking at the San Rafael Swell and federal legislation for a long time," said Petersen. "We were approached by the state about the Goblin Valley and we are exploring it."

There are several ways the heritage park could become a reality.

Petersen says the county has not determined how it will move forward, but the first option is to pursue a partnership between Emery County and state and federal agencies to respect traditional user groups including cattle grazers, OHV riders and hunters.

Another option could create the management swap through Bishop's legislation, tentatively scheduled to go before Congress early next year. Petersen said Emery County has shared details with the congressman's office.

Utah lawmakers could make it happen on a third track — similar to a proposed bill sponsored by Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, to transfer management of the BLM's Little Sahara Recreation Area to Utah State Parks.

"If there is any land conveyance, it will have to be done congressionally," said Petersen.

The plan could run up against opposition from groups who have suggested the San Rafael Swell be designated a national monument or park.

"Although we cannot offer any comment on the effort because we have not received an official proposal for expanding Goblin Valley State Park, we look forward to working with our county and state partners to promote recreation on public lands in Utah," BLM spokesperson Megan Crandall said.

Conservation groups are keeping a close eye on the park proposal, but applauded Emery County for a long history of working openly on the San Rafael Swell.

"They have been a model in the public process," said David Nimkin, southwest regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association based out of Salt Lake City. "We are always looking for land mines or traps in these plans. We would like to look at a larger picture to make sure everything fits and to see what kinds of compromises might be forthcoming."

If the heritage park happens, Smith and other state parks officials are confident they can make things work.

"We are on our way to becoming a self-funded agency and we need to find opportunities that pay for themselves," said Smith. "We don't want to take on a financial liability.

"Goblin Valley not only meets its own expenses, but also creates a profit," he added. "We are confident with the visitation levels to nearby lands and the improvements we could make that we would not lose money and we would be creating a better recreation experience for our visitors."

Twitter: @BrettPrettyman