The Bureau of Land Management announced the dates of the September Utah oil and gas lease sale on Aug. 11—without the inclusion of over 80,000 acres of land in the Moab area that had been nominated for the sale.

“This decision is a huge victory for the many park advocates, tribal communities, outdoors enthusiasts, and local governments and residents who spoke out against these dangerous plans and have now successfully protected some of Utah’s wildest public lands,” said Liam Kelly, communications manager for the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association, in a statement.

Opponents speak up to protect recreation economy

Opponents of the leases, both locally and across the country, submitted comments to the BLM asking that the parcels be removed from the September sale, citing damage to recreational opportunities and the local outdoor tourism economy. Many of the parcels nominated are near national parks and other prized recreation areas.

“The backbone of Grand County and Moab’s economy is outdoor recreation,” said Jacques Hadler, general manager of local bike shop Moab Cyclery and candidate for Grand County Council.

“During past recessions, and even during this pandemic, people come to Moab to experience the great outdoors, and we need to make sure this primary economic driver and our incredible landscapes are not degraded by industrial development,” he said during a July 16 press call opposing the lease sale organized by local community leaders.

Current Grand County Council member Evan Clapper also participated in the press call, saying,

“The BLM proposal threatens the core of Moab’s tourism economy by selling oil and gas leases on and around popular recreation areas... This sale is likely to produce industrial impacts to many of our most valued recreation sites, such as increased noise levels, air pollution and safety concerns.”

Clapper also drafted a letter, which was approved by a council vote and submitted to the BLM during the public comment period, opposing the lease sale.

In addition to concerns about the recreation economy, Clapper said the sale is “an economic loser.”

Oil demand and prices have been very low in recent months. In addition, royalty fees that are normally levied on productive oil wells on public lands are currently drastically reduced under COVID-relief measures. These conditions, he and other opponents say, make this an unwise moment to offer these parcels for sale.

BLM responds

The public outcry was apparently noted by BLM officials.

“The BLM remains strongly supportive of the recreation and tourism industry as being an important source of revenue in Utah,” said Kimberly Finch, communications director for the Utah BLM state office, in an email to the Moab Sun News.

Finch noted that even before the public comment period had opened, BLM officials had removed over 28,000 acres of nominated lands in the Moab area in light of recreation values.

In the BLM’s Aug. 11 press release, new Utah BLM State Director Greg Sheehan emphasized that the BLM values the recreation and tourism industry.

“Understanding the nature of the proposed parcels, as well as gathering input from local communities, partners and the public are a priority for me as the new State Director for BLM Utah,” Sheehan wrote.

Local governments engage

Both the Moab and Grand County councils had been keeping tabs on the lease sale. Grand County had requested to be a cooperating agency in the process, but the BLM said their application was too late to be approved. Both the city and the county have applied to be cooperating agencies in the next quarterly sale in December.

City Councilmember Kalen Jones, who alerted the council early on about the large acreage in the Moab area nominated for leasing, said he thinks local governments are engaging in the oil and gas leasing on public lands process more now than they have in the past.

Part of that might be due to a progressive slant on the councils in recent years, he speculated, and another part might also be the growth of the outdoor recreation industry and that sector’s maturation into an organized network with a strong voice.

While local government bodies are asking to be included in the analysis of parcels considered for oil and gas development, that doesn’t mean they hold a blanket opposition to the industry.

“The September sale was so alarming because it was so massive and potentially impactful to recreation,” Jones explained. Given time to participate in the analysis of specific parcels, city and county officials may agree that some areas are appropriate for energy development.

Jones said he said he doesn’t know the exact reason that the BLM decided not to include parcels in the Moab Field Office area, but he’s relieved they did so.

“It’s one less thing to work on this fall,” he joked.

Not good news for everyone

Not all locals are pleased with the removal of the Moab area parcels from the September lease sale.

Grand County resident and former county councilmember Lynn Jackson was dismayed by the BLM’s decision to remove the Moab area parcels. He referenced the 2016 Moab Area Master Leasing Plan, which governs oil and gas leasing in the area—the proposed acres were all available for leasing under that plan, which was the result of years of study and discussion between stakeholders and the BLM. A 2008 Resource Management Plan also guides management practices in the area.

“At this point, what is the purpose of even having these two massively complex BLM plans that took years and years to develop, with massive data analysis and major public involvement, if, at the end, you’re not going to even follow them?” asked Jackson in an email to the Moab Sun News. “It shows a continuous systemically dysfunctional process and agency. There really is no point in trying to lease anything in Grand County. The oil industry is done here.”

Moab and Grand County elected officials say they don’t want to end oil and gas development in Grand County, however; Council Chair Mary McGann stated at a July 7 county council meeting that she thought some energy development in Grand County would be “great.”

Finch said that when the BLM decides parcels nominated for leasing need further review, they may consider amending relevant land use plans to include more resource protection stipulations in some areas, or to close some areas to leasing altogether. Barring amendments like these, deferred parcels could be up for leasing in the future, she said.