As the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) prepares to sell oil and gas leases on more than 51,000 acres of public lands near national parks and monuments in southeastern Utah, conservation groups are formally protesting the agency’s plans.
The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) and other organizations have been monitoring the BLM’s environmental review of the land since July 2017. Such auctions are held every two years, but SUWA staff attorney Landon Newell said the pending public lands auction is of special concern because more than half of the 43 parcels up for lease are located in areas of known cultural and environmental sensitivity.
“It's a full-on attack on public lands,” he said. “The push and the momentum will start to build. This is clearly an example of what we can expect to see more of in the future.”
The BLM said in a statement that the lease sale is in keeping with the Trump administration’s stated goal of strengthening America’s energy independence.
“BLM continues to support a balanced approach to energy exploration and working landscapes on public lands,” Acting BLM Canyon County District Manager Gary Torres said. “We carefully considered comments from the public and our partners in developing the list of parcels and resource protection measures for this lease sale.”
The auction will include several tracts in the culturally rich part of southeastern Utah known as Alkali Ridge, along popular recreational sections of the Green River and San Juan River that are home to several endangered fish species, and several tracts near popular spots in Moab, including in the proposed Goldbar Canyon and Labyrinth Canyon wilderness areas.
Many of the segments were removed from an auction in 2015. At that time, they were found not to be good candidates for development once officials had taken into consideration the feedback of land management agencies and concerned public groups.
The latest protest outlines concerns that the BLM has not adequately evaluated the potential impacts of mineral extraction to natural and cultural resources, either directly or indirectly.
“The lands encompassed by the leases at issue are recognized as being incredibly rich in cultural resources, reflecting thousands of years of human history,” the Jan. 3 protest letter from SUWA to the BLM director in Salt Lake City says. “Sites within the lease parcels include Ancestral Puebloan habitation sites, structures and artifact scatters; petroglyphs and pictographs; Navajo sweat houses and hogans; and potential segments of the Old Spanish Trail.”
Of 93 recorded cultural sites within the proposed lease parcels, 59 have been determined eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, according to the protest letter.
Such protests are an expected part of the process any time public lands are offered for private development, former Grand County Council member, retired BLM employee and professional geologist Lynn Jackson said.
“Virtually every piece of land has some value to some group,” Jackson said. “That’s what their business is: to protect those other resources, be they archaeological or whatever they may be.”
When large and small oil and gas companies bid on the parcels in March, they will simply be speculating that the parcels they secure could have anything of value underground, Jackson said.
“Oil companies are out there to protect their interest, which is to develop energy resources we all still need,” he said.
San Juan County Planner Nick Sandberg said in a letter to the BLM that the leases are in line with that county’s Resource Management Plan.
“(Oil) and gas operations are an important contributor to a diversified county economy and the County supports leasing as a necessary step toward realizing economic benefits,” Sandberg wrote.
In a separate formal protest, the National Park Service emphasized concern about impacts development on some of the lease parcels would have on the viewsheds of landscapes in the region.
Compromised air quality, noise and light pollution and a general reduction in the quality of the landscape are serious concerns, NPS Southeast Utah Group Superintendent Kate Cannon wrote in a letter to the BLM.
“We would be concerned about impacts to resources regardless of visitation; however, the trend of dramatically increasing visitation to the area suggests that increased emphasis be given to associated landscape features such as air quality, scenic views, soundscapes and dark night skies,” Cannon said in the letter.
A dozen of the parcels in question are located within 15 miles of Hovenweep National Monument, which is recognized internationally as a Dark Skies park, she pointed out.
Local water conservation group Living Rivers has assessed the capacity of the region to sustain increased mineral extraction and found that water will be a major limiting factor to successful development in any case, Living Rivers Conservation Director John Weisheit said.
In the process of finding oil, companies often hit natural gas, which is spent wastefully in flaring, and fracking for natural gas risks seriously damaging underground water resources, he said.
“It's well known we’re getting hard-to-reach resources,” Weisheit said. “Why?”
The speculative nature of the lease purchases doesn't make the impacts of their potential future development any less real, Newell contended, and by law, the BLM is required to assess them thoroughly and ensure stipulations are written into the leases to protect natural and cultural resources.
“That mentality is a total disservice to the American public who own this land,” he said. “Essentially, oil and gas companies are picking up leases for next to nothing so they look like a bigger deal to investors, and the public sees no return on that investment. And all the while we have to fight off efforts to develop, spending money and resources unnecessarily.”
Jackson acknowledged that wise resource use is on “everybody’s agenda” today, given current scientific understanding of capacities, and limits.
“I like having relatively inexpensive energy,” he said. “We have to transfer to renewables intelligently; you can’t keep it all in the ground. Let’s move to renewables, but do it in a measured way.”