Just two weeks into the Trump administration, one pledged to pursue a vigorous domestic energy development course, Zion National Park officials find themselves in a bind over how to react to a proposal to allow oil and gas exploration within a mile of the park.
With U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke's confirmation as Interior secretary yet to be finalized by the Senate, park officials are waiting for him to take the helm at Interior and seek his guidance on the matter.
“It’s a real peculiar time to be making hard statements one way or another with the transition of administrations," said Zion spokesman John Marciano. "It's a sensitive topic."
At issue is the possibility that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management will put up for an oil and gas lease auction in June three parcels near the park in southwestern Utah, including one that would straddle the Kolob Terrace Road north of Virgin that is used to reach the "roof" of the park. The agency is taking comments through Friday on an environmental assessment analyzing the consequences of putting the parcels up for auction, though the National Park Service is thinking of asking the BLM to extend the comment period.
"We’re writing a letter to BLM to ask them to extend the comment period so we can further review with senior leadersjhip and further obtain more current geological statistics from various services that will affect how we’ll respond," said Mr. Marciano late last week. "We want to get more information. We want to support our statements with better statistics.
"... Until further analysis of the EA is done, which will include obtaining more up-to-date statistics from various departments and conversations with senior leadership, we really can't respond to having a particular position," he added. "We are, however, concerned with protections under the Clean Air Act as Zion is considered a Class 1 area; the affect of noise, erosion, and with protecting the darkness of the night sky."
National Parks Conservation Association officials have been more vocal in opposing the potential auction, saying drilling isn't appropriate so close to the national park.
“We’re concerned about air quality, night skies, soundscapes," said Cory MacNulty, NPCA's senior program manager for Utah. “We are also concerned about the impact on visitor experience. We feel not only is this not in an appropriate location, but they’re being offered for lease at a very critical time with increased visitation to Zion.”
Zion has seen a sizeable increase in visitation, with last year's tally of 4,317,028 representing a nearly 18 percent increase over 2015 numbers. The park's heightened popularity has officials working on a visitor use management plan, one that might call for a carrying capacity to be established. With shoulder seasons getting shorter and shorter, NPCA officials are concerned about the impact drilling activity could have on those trying to enjoy the park.
With at least one of the parcels being located in critical winter habitat for mule deer, any successful leasee likely would have to concentrate their drilling operations during the busy tourist season, said Ms. MacNulty.
"The bottom line for us," she said, "is there aren’t producing wells in the county. This is not an appropriate place to start, a mile from Zion National Park. The national park is drawing visitors from around the world, and we’re grappling with that visitation now. Given the importance of the park to the economy and the future of the area, we don’t think this is an appropriate location."
Louise Excell, an area resident, spoke out against the proposal in January.
“As a lifetime resident and a retired owner of several hospitality and tourist-related businesses in Springdale, Utah, I know how crucial the greater Zion National Park area is to our visitors and local residents alike,” she said. "I cannot imagine how visitors will feel as they discover pump jacks and flares from oil and gas drilling are visible from both inside and outside the park. Not only will the sight be jarring for visitors and residents, but other important natural resources and quality of life will be affected, including diminished air quality, loss of natural soundscapes, and night skies.”
Officials with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance see no need for the parcels to be put up for auction.
"The oil and gas industry has roughly 2 million acres of BLM-managed lands in Utah already under lease that they have not developed," the advocacy group said. "Despite the extensive leased lands, in 2016 the drilling of new oil and gas wells in Utah reached a 30-year low."
“BLM’s proposal to sell these two leases is déjà vu all over again. Just like its proposal in 2008 to sell leases adjacent to Arches and Canyonlands National Park and Dinosaur National Monument, this is an entirely ill-conceived plan that should be rejected,” said Landon Newell, SUWA's staff attorney. “This lease-first, think-later approach to oil and gas leasing has been rejected time and time again. It’s hard to understand what would compel BLM to propose offering these parcels but whatever their motivation, BLM should rethink its proposal which threatens Utah’s most popular national park.”
Traveler footnote: A petition asking the BLM not to put the parcels up for auction can be found at this page.