"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.