Eight rural Utah counties are competing to host a satellite inland port

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Main Street businesses in Price have suffered in the past few years with low demand of coal and mine closures. Carbon County is one of eight Utah counties that has provided information to the Utah Inland Port Authority in hopes of being considered as a satellite port.

The inland port, a massive international distribution hub planned for Salt Lake City’s northwest corner, has been wildly unpopular with residents since its inception, prompting numerous protests over fears it will increase traffic and worsen air quality.

But rural Utah counties with struggling economies made even more sluggish by the coronavirus pandemic see the project differently. And eight of them are now competing behind the scenes for the chance to host a “satellite” inland port, with hopes that the development would bring new jobs and investment to their ailing communities.

Ginger Chinn, managing director of business development for the port authority, said that when the request for information for the satellite port designation process opened, “just about every county in the state came forward and said, ‘We’d like to have a satellite port.’”

Only a handful of those have submitted information to the port authority describing the picture for development in their communities. But the intense interest speaks to the wider challenges facing rural communities, many of which haven’t enjoyed the economic prosperity that the Wasatch Front has in recent years.

“Our rural communities are always looking for some panacea” to cure their economic struggles, Chinn said. And with all four Republican gubernatorial candidates before the primary election saying that the satellite port is one of the best economic opportunities the state has ever seen, “obviously that creates some interest,” she added.

Beaver, Carbon, Emery, Grand, Iron, Juab, San Juan and Wayne counties have signaled their desire to host a satellite port, according to documents obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune through open records requests.

The counties’ “asset mapping” forms point to their access to airports, major highways and sometimes freight as positioning them best as a future global distribution hub. But many cite challenges as well: small and untrained workforces and a lack of affordable housing.

The site proposals range from a relatively small 34 acres in Wayne County to nearly 9,000 acres in Emery County, a footprint that’s more than half the size of the big port development in Salt Lake City.

The port authority is sorting through the forms and will then move into Phase Two, which will require select counties to conduct a more detailed market assessment and provide more information about concepts and incentive opportunities for development.

There’s no clear timeline for when those counties might be picked, Chinn said, nor is there a defined number for how many satellite ports the state might incentivize.

But a proposal has to make business sense, she said. “We have to be very methodical and really think this through from a market analysis and an impact analysis [standpoint].”

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) This aerial photo from June 2018 shows where the inland port will be built in northwestern Salt Lake City.

‘Behind closed doors’

The satellite ports are part of a vision in which the Salt Lake City port would serve as a “hub” while other interested communities would represent the “spokes” in an effort to make it easier for Utah’s imports and exports to clear international customs.

The Utah Inland Port Authority provided insight into its vision of the satellite port system in its request for information from the counties: a network of rural connections forming a complementary system to efficiently move freight throughout the state.

Proponents of the model say it would address some of the concerns environmental advocates have raised in opposition to the project planned for Salt Lake City. Dispersing development would reduce emissions and traffic in Salt Lake County, while bringing good jobs to overlooked communities.

But despite the broad support outside the Wasatch Front, opponents in the Salt Lake Valley remain skeptical of the satellite port framework. It would simply spread negative impacts around the state, they argue, and they’re concerned that the “spokes” would be used to facilitate the transfer of fossil fuels.

They’re also frustrated by what they see as a lack of transparency.

Deeda Seed, a campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity and an organizer with the Stop the Polluting Port Coalition, said the revelation that counties have already submitted information about their development assets was “deeply disturbing.”

“Sadly, what we’re seeing here is that this has been happening in backrooms, under the radar, outside of public view,” she said. “It’s another example of why we shouldn’t trust the port authority, frankly, that they’re doing this in this way. When did they plan to tell the public about this?”

Seed said she’s particularly concerned about the proposal in Emery County, which along with Iron County explicitly mentions coal as an area for growth.

Emery County’s proposed port of nearly 9,000 acres would encompass 4,238 acres of Bureau of Land Management land; nearly 3,000 of School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration property; more than 1,600 acres of private land and 61 acres owned by Green River City.

“Creating a coal transfer facility and using public lands to do that is exactly what we’ve been worried about, because it’s taking a publicly owned resource and putting it towards something that will increase the destruction of our planet,” Seed said.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Deeda Seed of Stop the Polluting Port Coalition holds up a report being released outlining the potential environmental harms from the proposed Utah Inland Port during a news conference at the Utah Capitol, Jan. 22, 2020.

Emery County Commission Chairman Lynn Sitterud said he understands concerns in the Salt Lake Valley over transporting coal but added that he sees the satellite port as an investment in a future without the fossil fuel.

“If we have good-paying jobs in Emery County, then it helps set up a tax base and set up a county for the day the coal power plants shut down,” he said. “We need this type of industry. The inland port is a way for Emery County to survive when the coal starts to shut down more than it has.”

Stan Holmes, a volunteer board member on the executive committee of the Sierra Club’s Utah chapter, has been closely following the satellite port project and said he was unaware that counties had submitted these proposals. There’s no information about the activity on the port authority’s website, and The Tribune learned about it only through a series of open records requests.

The submissions, Holmes argues, contradict assertions by some members of the port board that “there’s not a lot going on.”

“There’s obviously been a lot going on behind closed doors,” he said.

Chinn, with the port authority, cautions that the authority is in “the beginning stages” of gathering information about the development picture in the state and what assets exist and said that shouldn’t be perceived as secretiveness.

“We have to do our homework before we start moving forward,” she said, “and I think it would be a grand fail if we didn’t start to say, ’Hey, what exists in our state? Where should we look?’ I don’t think that lacks transparency to do some homework.”

As the port moves forward, Chinn said the board will conduct a public engagement process, and any satellite port would ultimately need to be approved by a majority of the 11 members.

Holmes said his attention was focused on the satellite port proposal in Sevier County, which was unfolding through a public process with the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition of eastern Utah counties.

Sevier County Commissioner Garth “Tooter” Ogden, who also sits on the Utah Inland Port Authority board, told The Tribune that the county ultimately decided not to pursue a satellite port because it lacks access to freight. County leaders still want to consider a trucking hub in the area, Ogden said, and there’s a chance that they could throw the county’s name back into consideration for a satellite port at a future date if other proposals don’t work out.

Tooele County, which was pushing for the creation of a port on 12,000 acres of largely undeveloped land near Erda, also did not put in a submission.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) The Romney Group, a private real estate investment company, had pushed for the creation of a 12,000-acre satellite port in Tooele County, which includes Erda, Jan. 28, 2020.

A ‘perfect location’

In the forms they submitted to the port, all eight counties appear to make a case why their site would be best — a calculation based largely on each location’s proximity to rail, airports and interstates.

Grand County, for example, is proposing a satellite port on a 613-acre site owned by the F.W. Bert & Mae Dean Wheeler Foundation. Rail passes through the property, which is located close to an Interstate 70 offramp and within 20 miles of the Canyonlands Field Airport. Plus, the site is an opportunity zone, a community development program created by the Trump administration to spur economic development in low-income areas that “has the potential to attract private capital,” the county noted.

Taken together, Grand County argues, these factors make it “an ideal site for a Satellite Port.”

But several counties, in addition to their transportation connectivity, are also pointing to another consideration: the need for economic opportunities within their communities.

Beaver County, for example, which is offering up a “several hundred”-acre spot in Milford, uses its submission to point to an economic downfall “with retail shops and small-business closures during the pandemic.” That’s caused unemployment to rise, pushing families out of the area as they look for work elsewhere.

“An inland port,” the county believes, “will open job opportunities as well as income for our county to be able to thrive and bring people to the community as well as keep them here for generations.”

Robert Pyles, Beaver County’s economic development director, said having an inland port would encourage more companies to move in and would also be a boost to the farmers and businesses already there.

“We’re looking at mineral and we’re looking at agriculture. We’re looking at livestock,” he said. “We’re looking at a bunch of fields that would benefit from the inland port.”

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) The Milford Wind Corridor Project, north of Milford, Utah, is the largest wind farm in the state.

In making its case for a nearly 3,000-acre satellite port, Iron County notes that it has been “working for many years to attract the development of industrial manufacturing and distribution” to the area west of Cedar City because of its rail, interstate and regional airport access and proximity to large Western markets.

But as one of the state’s lowest-income counties, Iron County also points to a bigger picture consideration: “We desperately need diverse primary employment opportunities for our local population and for graduates of Southwest Technical College and Southern Utah University who desire to stay here.”

Chinn said the authority will consider the needs of communities but reiterated that a satellite port “has to make sense from a business perspective.”

“If you build it in a distressed economy hoping to boost the economy,” she said, “I’m not sure that’s going to be the driver that boosts the economy.”

As the state considers the satellite port pitches, it will also have to consider the nearly identical challenges many of them face in getting a project off the ground — namely a small and untrained labor force and a lack of available housing.

Wayne County, which is proposing a 34-acre site, notes in its submission that it has the fourth lowest population among Utah’s counties, with approximately 2,700 full-time residents and a density of one person per square mile. The county is also made up of 97% public lands, which presents its own challenges in spurring economic activity.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) The sun sets behind Factory Butte, near Hanksville, Utah, May 19, 2010.

The area has “considerable assets,” the county notes in its report, pointing to its “spectacular environment, outstanding outdoor recreation opportunities, stable and hardworking resident base with natural resources that include timber and world-class paleontology.”

But there are also “issues that hamper economic development” — including “lack of adequate living wage jobs, challenges in access to available goods, services and markets, lack of affordable and quality housing, growing need for improved broadband and shortage of infrastructure.” The area also does not currently have access to rail.

Despite the potential challenges, Wayne County Commission Chairman Stanley Wood said that “if there’s something around, a county that’s as economically stressed as Wayne County needs to put in some applications.”

And a satellite port would, he said, allow the county to export something other than its kids.

‘Green and sustainable’

While the port authority largely wanted counties to provide information that could point to whether a satellite port would be economically feasible in their community, it also asked that they address another consideration: sustainability.

But even as the impacts of the inland port on the environment have remained a major sticking point in the Salt Lake Valley — and as the port authority has promised the port system will be “greener” than any currently in existence — it was an issue most counties didn’t go into in depth.

Nearly all of the communities noted the potential to use renewable energy, and a few said explicitly that would be part of their plans.

But when asked to propose environmental actions to mitigate the impacts of the port on their communities, Carbon, Emery and Grand counties listed “none.” And San Juan County said development of its proposed 593-acre site, located about 3 miles from the Monticello Airport, would pose “no environmental concerns.”

Juab County’s form notes the existence of a 500-acre solar farm in the area that will begin construction early this fall. But the county ignored a request to list the potential benefits and impacts of a port on the community and environment and focused only on the economic part of the question.

“The port would provide employment opportunities closer to the county’s populace,” Juab County wrote in response to this question. “As of right now, about 3,300 people per day leave the county for work. Juab also has a need for more commercial properties to contribute to our taxable portfolio.”

Iron and Wayne counties gave the most consideration to the potential for negative environmental effects as a result of development.

Wayne County’s submission noted that “environmental impacts to the land may present themselves once firm plans are made, but it is anticipated that they can be dealt with in a safe manner. In addressing air quality, the county acknowledged those standards “will be unknown” until there are more details about “the potential uses of the Wayne County satellite port property.”

Iron County states that its proposed Fiddler Canyon Development site is the location of two Granite Mountain East solar power plants and that the area has more utility-scale solar plants than the rest of Utah combined.

“Our high altitude, cooler temperatures, and number of sunny days make Iron County the most efficient area in the state for solar power production,” the county stated. “We currently have three large power plants located on or near the sites we have recommended.”

The county also notes that maintaining clean air and water is “paramount” in its community.

“Iron County has been working for several years on the development of an industrial belt route to divert industrial truck traffic away from Cedar City and the county’s population areas,” the county stated. “The first leg of this belt route is already complete and planning for the final leg of the route is in the planning stages.”

Chinn said environmental considerations will be an important component as the authority moves forward with siting a satellite port. Leaders want the entire system “to be green and sustainable,” she noted.

And while it’s unlikely that all the communities that have expressed interest would become satellite ports, Chinn said the process of answering questions about site preparedness, network connectivity, power and water resources and other considerations could be helpful for future economic development projects in a community.

In the future, she said, maybe “this is an opportunity to create an asset map that could benefit the whole state.”