The notion that oil and gas rigs could one day rise above the arches or pierce the stillness of the arches and canyons in southeast Utah seems far-fetched. After all, the raw beauty of the region has few parallels, and it’s the reason why several national parks have been designated over the years, including Arches and Canyonlands.
Outdoor recreation and tourism – not industrial development – drives the local economy. One study found that travel and tourism in Grand County, Utah supported more than 1,400 jobs (as compared to just 55 in oil and gas activity). Also, more than 1.4 million people visit parks in Grand County for the opportunity to float the Colorado River or admire the vistas at one of the national parks. Those visitors contributed $135.7 million in local economic activity.
Yet, in 2008, Arches and Canyonlands became poster children for one of the more high profile conflicts with proposed oil and gas leasing in recent memory. The conflict began when the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) proposed an oil and gas lease sale that contained several parcels bordering Arches National Park.
Oil and gas rigs could literally have risen within the famed view from Delicate Arch, which graces the State of Utah’s license plate. Additional parcels in the immediate vicinity of Arches and Canyonlands also threatened air quality and the still pristine views from within the parks.
Widespread criticism ensued, including from the National Park Service for the BLM’s failure to consult with them until late in the leasing process. The lands closest to Arches were withdrawn, but the others remained and were eventually auctioned off. Conservation groups immediately filed a lawsuit, and a federal district court, citing the potential impacts on the national parks, ordered the BLM to not issue the leases. A few weeks later, the Secretary of the Interior cancelled the leases and ordered a formal internal review of the circumstances that led to the lease sale.
The internal review culminated in the issuance of a report—known as the Stiles Report—which faulted the BLM for its treatment of the national parks and delayed consultation with the National Park Service.
“A great need and opportunity for canyon country land managers to collaborate in identifying the key features drawing the millions of visitors to their area each year, and to develop a framework or common understanding of how each managing agency contributes to the protection or enhancement of these features.”
– Final BLM Review of 77 Oil and Gas Lease Parcels Offered in BLM-Utah’s December 2008 Lease Sale, Mark W. Stiles, Forest Supervisor, San Juan National Forest, 7 October 2009.
In response to the report, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar overhauled its onshore oil and gas leasing system and announced a series of key reforms in May 2010. The reforms require better analysis and a closer look at the potential impacts oil and gas development could have on other resources such as air quality, water quality, wildlife, and tourism and recreation. The Interior Secretary also required better communication and coordination with other agencies such as the National Park Service when leasing could threaten the values those agencies are entrusted to protect. The reforms also require preparation of “Master Leasing Plans” when conflicts arise between proposed oil and gas activity and the protection of national parks and other important landscapes.
BLM is now preparing a Master Leasing Plan for the area around Moab. This represents an important step and opportunity for the BLM to take a fresh look at the landscape—the national parks and the recreational opportunities—and ensure oil and gas development happens responsibly by identifying the lands most appropriate for leasing and requiring proper safeguards for outdoor recreation and other values. The new plan will also allow stakeholders from local government, outdoor recreation and tourism businesses, the public, and the National Park Service to engage and have real input for making decisions about the future of these public lands.
It is critical that the BLM follow through and complete the Moab Master Leasing Plan. And that it does so in a way that is mindful of the past—the mistakes that were made in 2008—so that future generations may also experience and enjoy the unspoiled beauty of Arches and Canyonlands.