This past week I’ve been at Cedar Breaks National Monument in southwest Utah. It’s over 10,000 feet at the Civilian Conservation Corps era visitor center. I’m here doing night sky programs. The night sky is gorgeous at this altitude, and the air is as clean and clear as you’ll find anywhere in our country.
Last night I was watching a new crescent moon descending in the west just after sunset. Venus was the bright evening star a little to the right, also setting. A family of two kids with mom and dad were coming down the trail from the visitor center to their campsite. The little kids were running and squealing. The parents were laughing. I was laughing. It was an experience I’d had many times as a park ranger over my career. America was at play in a national park, as it was envisioned nearly 100 years ago.
Cedar Breaks NM is surrounded by the Dixie National Forest. And, as far as I know there are no plans to sell oil and gas leases anywhere around here. That apparently is still not the case in Colorado and New Mexico. Despite all the recent efforts from so many groups, including Park Rangers for Our Lands, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) appears to be poised to lease parcels of land for oil and gas drilling next to Dinosaur National Monument and Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado and Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico. This approach contrasts with what’s happening right across the border in Utah. There, the BLM is looking more closely at the landscape around Arches National Park, near Moab, where so much of the recent controversy over fracking began, before it issues any more leases.
Park Rangers for Our Lands has, from the beginning, acknowledged the need for oil and gas development on public lands. And we have stated our support for the BLM’s program of wisely leasing parcels within the lands they manage for oil and gas development. I also know their own vision, mission, and management policy statements talk to the idea of a balanced, well thought out, planned, and sensitive approach to oil and gas leasing that protects the recreational, scenic, wildlife, air and water quality values present in the lands they manage. So it is baffling to me why the BLM continues to make decisions on oil and gas leasing that both ignore their own agency’s instructions and directions for the sale of parcels for oil and gas leasing, and seem to be mostly a pass through paper process for the oil and gas industry.
We are simply urging the BLM to go through the process their own agency developed to ensure that the values of our national parks are protected while the nation is able to develop oil and gas resources important to our national economy. These recent tools were developed as a result of the public outrage over proposals to lease parcels for oil and gas development around Arches National Park in 2008. The result of that controversy was a reformed process for analyzing oil and gas leasing which included the concept of the master leasing plan, or MLP. “Smart from the start,” or “look before you lease” are both phrases that capture the essence of this reform. And that essence is essentially a commitment to analyze parcels of land for the impacts of oil and gas development before they are leased to oil and gas developers. The old process was more like a “lease it all, we’ll sort it out later,” approach. And that approach would often lead to public controversy and frequent lawsuits. The reformed process has the promise of doing the analysis up front, which eventually leads to leases that are well planned, sensitive to natural and recreational values, and acceptable to the majority of stake holders. That’s exactly what BLM is now doing around Arches, and should be doing for Dinosaur and Chaco. It’s hard to see the downside to that approach.
We are not the only ones making this case. The Equal Ground Campaign published a proposal for a balanced approach to oil and gas leasing on public lands A Blueprint for Balance. We think this proposal is a very practical one that could go a long way towards ensuring the wise development of our nation’s oil and gas reserves without destroying the values of our western lands.
And, recently a Hispanic family set out on a recreational trip through this area of Colorado, New Mexico and Utah. You can follow their blog at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/maite-arce/finding-equal-ground-for-_b_3725389.html?utm_hp_ref=tw. Their experience is common to so many of us who over the years have taken inspiration from the landscapes preserved in our national parks and monuments. What is so heartening is that this experience reflects a growing awareness of the importance of our public lands within the Hispanic community.
And that’s what makes it so important. Our national park lands are for everyone. They are one of the great democratic institutions this country has produced. The “best idea America ever had,” as the writer and historian Wallace Stegner once called it. The values they preserve; the wildlife, the clean air, the clean water and clear vistas are as important as the drilling for oil and gas. The BLM makes that very point in their own management documents. They should follow their own counsel.
Tonight I’m helping with a star party out on Point Supreme, here at Cedar Breaks. A lot of parents will bring their kids out to see the rings of Saturn. I hope when they see Saturn they will remember that they could see it in a national park. And I hope when they grow up they will still be able to take their kids to see the same things they will see tonight. If we do the planning now, before we lease, they will…and those squeals and giggles will continue down another generation.