While most Americans and their elected officials have been mesmerized by the economic crisis and the upcoming election, enormous changes in the management of public lands in Utah are afoot. The effects on a number of national parks could be substantial.
During the past two months, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has revised six land management plans (RMP's) covering 11 million acres of Utah canyon country. These lands surround Arches, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef national parks, Dinosaur National Monument, and other sites that attract visitors from all over the world.
In much the same way that city zoning plans identify which areas are appropriate for industrial use and which should be set aside for parks, these RMP's will determine how the BLM manages these public lands—including 5 million acres of proposed wilderness—for decades to come.
BLM is supposed to manage these lands for "multiple use," an admittedly difficult job when interest groups with widely divergent opinions clamor for their piece of the action. Unfortunately, the new management plans appear to be heavily skewed in favor of oil, gas and mining development and off-road vehicle use.
Among those speaking out this week were Jim Baca, former BLM State Director for Utah and former Mayor of Albuquerque and members of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA). According to SUWA, the new plans will open nearly 80 percent of the 11 million acres of public land to oil and gas development and off-road vehicle users.
Baca says the revised plans had been pushed by top managers in the BLM Washington office and at Interior. A SUWA statement provides a startling summary of the process:
The BLM released these six Utah plans in a dizzying flurry—one plan almost every week from August 1 to September 5, 2008. Although each plan technically has a 30-day protest period, the reality is that with only seven days separating the release dates, the public has only one week between each protest deadline to review and digest the plan and submit a protest letter to the BLM, detailing concerns and inadequacies in the plans. At over 1,000 pages each, it is simply an impossible task.
However, as the lifespan of these plans is 15-20 years, the long-term ramifications of the plans are significant – they control the destiny of the world-renowned canyon country of southern Utah for the next generation.
That push shouldn't be a surprise in the waning days of the current administration, especially in view of the current cry to "Drill, Baby, Drill." However, SUWA data suggests there's no compelling need to rush through vast numbers of new oil and gas leases that would be unlikely to be developed for years.
At the end of fiscal year 2006, while the industry held over 4.6 million acres of oil and gas leases on BLM lands in Utah, just over 1 million acres of those leased lands were actually in production. The rest were simply being "bankrolled" by leaseholders.
The group also cites figures from an industry trade magazine, Rocky Mountain Oil Journal: "As of April 18, 2008, there were only 41 drill rigs operating in Utah (compared to 122 in Colorado, 68 in Wyoming, and 82 in New Mexico). It’s this kind of shortage of drilling equipment and personnel that is causing a bottleneck in production, not environmental regulation or BLM delays."
It's often a challenge to grasp the implications of plans covering such vast areas, so let's take a closer look at what's in store for the Moab area, which includes land around Arches and Canyonlands.
Phil Brueck is a second-generation NPS manager who knows the Utah parks from years of first-hand experience. Now retired, his last assignment was as deputy superintendent for the Southeast Utah Group, which included management oversight for Canyonlands, Arches, Natural Bridges National Monument and Hovenweep National Monument.
In comments this week, he provides a clear summary of what's at stake:
Within the vast, internationally renowned landscapes of Utah lie small islands that are the national parks; the adjacent BLM lands often form the backdrop or context for these areas. It is BLM land that we see through the “Windows” at Arches NP; we admire the BLM cliffs and monuments as we gaze outward from the Delicate Arch area. The views from the Island in the Sky in Canyonlands NP would be minor if it were not for the grand sweeping views of BLM land down in the erosion basin. Picture oil and gas development, and Potash mining within each of these viewsheds.
It is BLM land that entices us into the Needles District of Canyonlands NP through the leafy charm of Indian Creek, along the stunning Wingate Cliffs and under the Six Shooter peaks. Part of the Canyonlands experience is the challenge of traversing the remote wilderness-like BLM lands in order to visit the Maze District on the west side. Here lie tracts of lands containing potential impacts from tar sands, uranium prospecting and mining.
Brueck also notes that it is very difficult in today’s world to get away from high ambient noise levels and experience true natural quiet—a quality valued by undeveloped areas in national parks.
Under the six new plans, 19,800 miles of off-road vehicle routes would be officially designated for motorized travel. That figure is not a misprint. Brueck comments that "many of these routes ‘dead-end’ at park boundaries, thus increasing (and somewhat encouraging) illegal use continuing across park boundaries into the parks. In the time that I worked in southeastern Utah, the expansion of tracks and routes from illegal off-road use, particularly on the northeast side of Arches and near the Needles area of Canyonlands, was astonishing to experience."
The reality is that, needed or not, oil and gas leasing will continue and ORV users will continue to push for more miles of roads. Groups opposed to the new plans recognize those facts, but argue that better balance between development and protection of areas with prime scenic values and natural and cultural resources is needed.
The BLM has previously identified 2.8 million acres within areas covered by the plans which still possess wilderness values. Under these plans, 91 percent of those areas would be opened to ORV use. Conservation groups note that even if BLM had recommended protection for all of the wild land it has previously identified, 86 percent of the proposed oil and gas wells could still be drilled. Under the new plans, the BLM proposes protection for only 16 percent of these roadless lands.
The BLM appears determined to forge ahead and issue final decisions on these plans within the next two months, despite written protests from conservation groups and more than 90 members of Congress.
Perhaps our greatest cause for alarm should be that political appointees at Interior feel complete freedom to pursue their agenda, shortcutting long-established procedures for reasoned review and meaningful public input, completely insulated from congressional or public oversight.
If you plan to enjoy the current stunning view on some prime pieces of your public lands, don't wait too long.