County Council vote

County Council members take a vote at their Tuesday, July 1 meeting. [Bethany Blitz / Moab Sun News]

The Grand County Council voted unanimously to send a letter to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) expressing its support for Alternative A, or “No Action,” on the draft Master Leasing Plan (MLP) that was presented to the public on May 14.

In the letter, the county stated that “without further refinement and development of a reasonable array of alternatives, we are forced to support the 'No Action' alternative.”

Public Land Solutions representative Jason Keith said, however, that the BLM, through participation with a variety of stakeholders including representatives from industry, recreation groups and the environmental community, had come up with a range of alternatives that represented the diverse needs of interested parties.

“The BLM's preliminary alternatives reflect the right balance between interests,” he said.

Alternative A, No Action, is one of four alternatives developed by the BLM Canyon Country District Office for oil, gas, and potash development within the Moab and Monticello resource area. The alternatives were designed to address a variety of overlapping resource needs and to provide a balance between resource development and recreational use, as well as wildlife and environmental protection.

Alternative A leaves the current management plan as it is, and is the least restrictive alternative for oil, gas, and potash development.

The preliminary draft MLP also provided alternatives B1, and B2 that still allow for oil, gas, and potash development in the same areas as Alternative A, but with tighter restrictions. A “no surface occupancy” stipulation had been designated for areas that are deemed to be in conflict with recreational use and scenic values.

Alternative C was the most restrictive option. It would place a no surface occupancy designation over most of the resource area, and close some areas entirely to future development. Areas closed to future development would include sections of canyon rim and corridor along the Green and Colorado Rivers, as well as a buffer zone around the periphery of Arches National Park.

“With the exception of Alternative A, No Action, the remaining alternatives go a great distance in significantly constraining our needs for revenue generation from resource development on BLM lands,” the letter stated

Local business owners who rely on tourism and recreation expressed frustration with the council's position.

“Alternative A doesn't include any protection for recreation areas and it leaves everything open to oil and gas development,” said Kirstin Peterson, a Moab City Council member and co-owner of Rim Tours. “I'm very disappointed and shocked that they wouldn't see the value in protecting local business.”

The Western Values Project (WVP), an organization that advocates “for a smart from the start, common sense approach to oil and gas leasing on public lands,” said it recognizes the importance of oil and gas development to the western economy, but also seeks to mitigate its impact on scenic landscapes that drive the economy through tourism and recreation.

"The recent Grand County position is simply out of touch with what local businesses, community leaders and other elected officials have been asking for - a balanced approach to development and recreation,” WVP director Ross Lane said.

County Council chairman Lynn Jackson said he recognizes the importance of recreation-based businesses to the county's economic well being and that he would never advocate for anything that he thought would negatively affect the county's ability to prosper under a recreation economy.

Jackson also said that “the significance of the modest level of mineral development we have and anticipate in our county to our economy is more significant than people may realize.”

“In 2011, Grand County received $430,000 in mineral-related royalty revenue from production on federal lands in our county,” Jackson said. “In 2014, we will receive approximately $2.5 million. This increase is the result of 10 additional wells that were drilled by Fidelity Oil in the MLP area in 2013. If Fidelity Oil can get approval to drill the 15 additional wells, they project to complete development of that field, those revenues will easily double.”

Jackson said mineral leases provide enhanced funding for special service districts, primarily transportation, healthcare, recreation, and solid waste handling. Additional mineral lease funds have also allowed the county to keep the long-term care facility open.

Though revenue in Grand County from resource development is expected to rise, a 2011 study done by Headwaters Economics showed that recreation and tourism revenue outpaced resource development three-fold. Tourism provided 44 percent of the jobs in Grand County and 16 percent of local government revenue. Natural resource development provided 3 percent of the jobs and 5 percent of government revenue.

“The public lands in Grand County – because of both their extensiveness and their beauty – have directly influenced and shaped the county’s economic performance,” according to the study. “Looking ahead, these lands will continue to play a vital role in the future economic health and prosperity of the region, and a key challenge facing Grand County leaders is how to maximize the long-term return from this valuable asset.”

The Moab MLP covers approximately 783,000 acres of public land in Grand and San Juan counties. The area starts just south of Interstate 70 and wraps around Arches National Park and Moab. The western boundary is the Green River and Canyonlands National Park. The area extends south to the tip of Canyonlands National Park and is bounded on the east by U.S. Highway 191.

The county said in its letter that Alternative B1 and B2 are overly restrictive with the usage of no surface occupancy designations.

“It would severely constrain the opportunity for future development in the one area of Grand County where additional oil and gas development has a high potential,” the letter stated.

The letter also stated that Alternative C is “completely unacceptable.”

Keith said that Alternative C isn't as restrictive as it appears, and that no-surface-occupancy lands in the Moab MLP can still be accessed via directional drilling from valid and existing federal leases and from adjacent School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) parcels. He also said that Public Lands Solutions is on record with over 50 Utah businesses supporting the smart policies outlined in Alternative C.

“Despite what the council's letter says, it's important to note that Alternative C does not ban future leasing of oil and gas within the MLP planning area.” Keith said. “There are hundreds of thousands of acres already leased up on Big Flat and around Moab that this plan will not affect. In fact, nearly all of the Gemini Bridges area and other important recreation locations are currently under lease, and these will remain unaffected by the MLP.”

The county said it was disappointed that it wasn't provided with a greater opportunity for input prior to releasing the alternatives to the public under the guidelines of its cooperating agency status.

“Our preference for Alternative A is not so much about that alternative being exactly what we would suggest for the area, as much as it relates to how poor the two B alternatives and Alternative C are,” Jackson said.

The BLM will incorporate the feedback they received from the county, the public, and other cooperating agencies in developing an impact-analysis for each of the preliminary alternatives. The agency said it will look at adjusting the alternatives based on the feedback they received and incorporate this into a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) scheduled for release and formal public comment in December 2014.

 "We appreciate the public and cooperating agencies for putting in their feedback in order to help us come up with a good plan," BLM district manager Lance Porter said.

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