Arches National Park Finds Its Birthday Overshadowed By Drilling Concerns

Fiery Furnace, Arches National Park. Kurt Repanshek photo.

The Fiery Furnace of Arches National Park is a curious setting. How might oil and gas drilling on the park's borders impact it? Kurt Repanshek photo. Lease graphic by Salt Lake Tribune.

"This is the most beautiful place on Earth."

"A weird, lovely, fantastic object out of nature like Delicate Arch has the curious ability to remind us -- like rock and sunlight and wind and wilderness -- that out there is a different world, older and greater and deeper by far than ours, a world which surrounds and sustains the little world of men as sea and sky surround and sustain a ship."

Edward Abbey, in Desert Solitaire.

How happy can a birthday celebration be when it's overshadowed by the possibility of a blight on the landscape? Of course, one person's blight is another's prosperity. But in the case of Arches National Park, it would seem that we as a nation need to better define how we value those special places called national parks.

On one hand, Arches marks its 37th birthday as a national park today (although it was given national monument status way back in 1929 by none other than President Herbert Hoover. While Mr. Hoover's tenure in the White House largely was saddled with the baggage of the Great Depression, we should at least give thanks for this part of his record.). But at the same time, the park's incredible "rockitecture" is being challenged by the threat of oil and gas development surrounding the park's borders.

This dilemma likely would more easily be dealt with if it weren't being handled in such a disdainful way. Consider the following:

* Utah's known petroleum reserves have been estimated at little more than 1 percent of those in the entire United States. Its natural gas reserves are estimated at 2.5 percent of the country's. Cast another way, "the total amount of oil and gas in or near the existing areas of large-scale production is estimated at 912 MMBO and 10.68 TCF respectively -- enough oil to supply the country for less than seven weeks and enough natural gas to supply the country for about five and a half months."

* On one hand, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management states that it works closely with the National Park Service when it comes to selling oil and gas leases around national parks:

BLM works with the National Park Service during land use planning to obtain input and coordinate regarding leasing of lands adjacent to or near National Park units. Additionally, we coordinate with appropriate Park Service units for each lease sale and provide descriptions of parcels under consideration, consistent with land use planning decisions. BLM may defer the offering of parcels if they are within key viewsheds of highly visited park locations. If development is proposed on a lease after it is issued, BLM works additionally with the Park Service to mitigate impacts, once a site-specific proposal is received.

And yet, before it announced on Election Day that it planned to sell energy leases to more than 360,000 acres, including thousands of acres surrounding Arches and Canyonlands national parks and Dinosaur National Monument, the BLM didn't bother to confer in advance with the National Park Service.

* The Bush administration's contempt for the intrinsic value of public lands has been well-documented during the past eight years. Most recently in Utah the BLM issued six resource management plans that tilt decided to energy exploration and off-road vehicle use. Here's a short analysis from the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (which, admittedly, is a conservation group):

The plans designate over 17,000 miles of dirt routes—including 1,600 miles of routes within the 2.8 million acres of agency-identified roadless areas. Rather than minimize impacts to wildlife habitat, streams and watersheds, and cultural resources, the plans legitimize every track and trail visible on the ground, including streambeds, decades old abandoned mining trails, old energy exploration tracks, user-created jeep trails, and other trails that have almost disappeared from years of disuse. This “travel planning process” went horribly awry and will funnel 4x4s and ATVs into remote areas where quiet and naturalness now prevail. Especially hard hit: Labyrinth Canyon along the Green River, Indian Creek by Canyonlands National Park, Upper Kanab Creek near the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and Parunuweap Canyon next to Zion National Park.

How do we balance land conservation with land development (or, to use a pejorative, exploitation)? How should we? Should national parks be allowed to become islands within development, whether that's oil and gas fields or ranchettes?

Arches National Park offers in one landscape more than 2,000 rock arches, windows, minarets, and bridges, the greatest single accumulation anywhere in the world. It's a landscape where your imagination runs wild, one that, for aging Baby Boomers, offers a real-world glimpse into the cartoon-world of the Flintstones.

Interestingly, it was the dream of luring tourists to this corner of southeastern Utah that led to the park's designation.

Alexander Ringhoffer, a prospector, wrote the Rio Grande Western Railroad in 1923 in an effort to publicize the area and gain support for creating a national park. Ringhoffer led railroad executives interested in attracting more rail passengers into the formations; they were impressed, and the campaign began. The government sent research teams to investigate and gather evidence. On April 12, 1929 President Herbert Hoover signed the legislation creating Arches National Monument, to protect the arches, spires, balanced rocks, and other sandstone formations. On November 12, 1971 congress changed the status of Arches to a National Park, recognizing over 10,000 years of cultural history that flourished in this now famous landscape of sandstone arches and canyons.

While it's far from a given at this point, should one day the views through Delicate Arch and other "windows" in the park be of drilling rigs, of oil-field trucks rumbling hither and there, of illuminated drilling pads? How would air quality be affected, not to mention the natural soundscape? Should there be concern that "thumper trucks" employed to search out petroleum reserves just might hasten the downfall of some of those arches, which now give way only to the unaided laws of gravity?

And if one does suggest that the viewsheds around the park be protected with a buffer zone, how wide should it be, and would that be a de facto expansion of Arches' footprint? If so, when do you say enough is enough?

On this birthday there is much to worry about and contemplate regarding the future of Arches National Park. Perhaps we can leverage these issues into a productive discussion, one that leads not only to sound preservation and better appreciation of places such as Arches but also to a thorough evaluation of how we address the energy needs not just of this country but those of the rest of the world as well.

After all, just because oil and natural gas come out of the U.S. reserves doesn't necessarily mean it will be consumed within this country.

Comments

This is all the more tragic because you can already see oil wells from famous vistas within Arches. Spend some time at the Windows at night, look west toward Canyonlands, and lo and behold, it's very easy to spot flames from two or three flaring oil wells that sit just off the highway to Canyonlands' Island in the Sky District. The blight of energy development began ever so slightly to mar Arches' grand vistas a few years ago, and now oil wells stand to dot the landscape all around the park. For an irreplacable landscape as intricate and remote as that of the BLM land around Arches to be industrialized and destroyed by the ever-greedy industry and Bush's contempt for public lands is not only tragic, but a sobering reminder that we must ever be vigilant in our fight to ensure the future of our national parks and wildlands.

What's the difference if it's an oil well or one of the damned ugly windmills.

Evironmentalist don't seem to mind when windmills spoil scenic vistas. Drive along I-81 through the Poconos and enjoy the spectacle of these monstrously ugly windmills along the ridgeline. It's a liberal mindset against oil that makes a windmill somehow less of an eyesore than an oil well. (Unless, of course, you're Teddy Kennedy or John Kerry and someone wants to put a windmill farm off the coast of your beloved Cape Cod, then it's suddenly unacceptable.)

And I find it interesting that liberal environmentalists always throw down their trump card - "there really isn't even enough oil there to justify drilling". They're obviously idealistic academics unfamiliar with the business world, otherwise they would understand that an oil company isn't going to invest in the expense of drilling where there isn't much oil to be found. It's either fantasy or bold-face lying to suggest otherwise. AND... if oil companies did follow such a poor business plan as to drill where there was only 6 months worth of oil, than guess what...in six months the oil well would be gone along with the oil. No more ugly well...but we're still stuck with those damned windmills. How would a string of windmills along the Canyonlands look to you?

It's the same old sorry song that most Americans are getting tired of. The militant environmentalist don't want us to drill for oil anywhere because it violates their Environment/global warming religion that they worship at the alter of St. Al. Their goal is to rid the world of carbon based fuels and have us all live on wind and solar. Yeah, good luck with that. Unless some more efficient means of alternative energy is discovered we either cover every inch of available space, including the national parks, with solar panels and windmills or we get real and drill, baby, drill!

Connie W, sounds to me your more worried about your oil stocks then saving the environment from rape, greed and pillage. We had eight years of Geo. Bush's non-sensical environment policies which are hell bent on pure exploitation of are natural resources. And, without a clue what conservation of are natural resources means. If Bush was smart, we would be far ahead of the game in alternative energy management. But, playing ear to the Big Oil companies is one of the main reasons why were in this energy pickle. More oil drilling close to the National Parks is not a solution to are energy crises but an insult to rational thinking and planning towards the future. Your idol Geo. Bush (I assume) has publicly admitted we use too much oil. A surprisingly strong comment from a oil siphoning lame duck President. With President elect Obama, soon to take office, I'm sure we can get this country rolling again and become a world super power (with integrity to spare) soon as we get are priorities straight and act together...and with less corporate shenanigans...were going to be just fine. Plus, take care of our of National Parks like good environmental custodians should. As far as wind, solar and other alternative energies (outside of are one way energy system called pro-oil) this should be a big priority and a huge step into the 21st. century...ask Boone Pickens! Connie, unless you live afar from the oil drilling areas in the U.S., you probably don't have to worry about the water table pollution (noted recently in parts of the country). I think you will be a lot healthier and happier with solar and wind power, instead of massive oil rigs drilled everywhere that burns the eyes. Let's step ahead into the 21st century and stop regressing towards a draconian life style of the 1900's...called the pre-industrial era. Something that Geo. Bush failed to see and do! His approval ratings at 28% (or less) is a testament of failures and misdeeds as President.

Connie, you are creating a false choice between two scenarios when the real answer is that wind power AND oil drilling are problematic eyesores. It is not right to drill helter-skelter just because wind turbines are hypocritical (and I agree they are).

AGW (anthropogenic global warming) is not a "religion" just because some uneducated AM DJ says so. It's common sense that people are causing it, unless you can prove that CO2 has no ability to trap heat, or that people are not releasing it in vast, unnatural quantities. Get with the science.

There is nowhere near enough oil in the U.S. (including Alaska) to supply our 20 million barrel per day habit (in good economic times it will grow again). Few right-wing reactionaries bother to do the math. To make it very simple, at a conservative 20 million barrels per day we are using a BILLION barrels every 50 days. Estimated reserves in ANWR and coastal drilling combine to about 30 billion barrels in best-case scenarios, so do the math. That's only 30 x 50 days, which equals about 4 years of "independence from foreign oil."

Independence? All it will do is keep us stuck in an increasingly desperate oil rut, relying more and more on Canadian tar sands or the truly land-wrecking spectre of shale mining, which has yet to be proven practical. Fossil fuels simply have downsides. There was no contract that guaranteed an easy ride forever when the first well was discovered.

Nuclear may be the best semi-sustainable (electricity) solution that doesn't wreck the landscape. New mini nuclear reactors hold a lot of promise for small towns and rural areas. You bury them deep in the ground and they require very little maintenance. Fear of everything nuclear needs to be overcome.

The long term solution to energy problems is halting mindless population growth (with global replacement-level birth control) and permanently stopping demand growth. Only then can we get a baseline for rational policies that don't involve continuous pillaging of the land under phony "green" banners or through old extractive industries.