From the window of a small plane, the area north of Canyonlands National Park appears as a vast, rolling expanse of white, tan and red sandstone, grayish-green fields of rice grass, sage and blackbrush, punctuated with towering buttes, and incised with deep canyons that fall towards the Green River. An asphalt ribbon, Utah’s Scenic Byway 313, slices through a portion of the area, providing access to Canyonlands and Dead Horse Point State Park, the Gemini Bridges area bike trails, and the Mineral Bottom Road – gateway to the White Rim Trail and the put in for a float through Stillwater Canyon.
Other features visible from the air include seemingly random dirt roads. Lots of them. Most came about during periodic episodes of oil exploration, and many end at vacant pads with plugged drill holes. Seismic line scars – some as many as 60 years old – run straight as an arrow through the desert and across pinyon and juniper covered mesas. In the old days, wildcatters would just push a D-9 straight across a mesa top. Then someone else would come along and do it right next to them.
Recent intrusions on the landscape include new oil wells and associated pads and tanks; a recently constructed, mostly above ground, 24 mile long natural gas pipeline; a fenced in booster station facility; and a natural gas processing plant. The pipeline runs practically right up to the entrance of Dead Horse Point State Park, and carries produced natural gas from 15 of 23 oil wells operating in the area. Prior to the pipeline’s construction, the natural gas was flared off into the atmosphere at a rate of 2 million cubic feet per day.
I’m getting this bird’s eye view as a passenger with EcoFlight, an Aspen, Colorado based non-profit whose mission is to “educate and advocate for the protection of remaining wild lands and wildlife habitat through the use of small aircraft.” I’ve been invited along by Ashley Korenblat of Public Land Solutions. Korenblat, who is also the owner of Western Spirit Cycling, has been advocating for the protection of public lands in and around Moab, not only for their wild and scenic values, but also for their importance to the area’s recreation economy. From the air, we’re seeing a landscape threatened by further oil and gas development, as well as potash mining, and where the BLM’s Master Leasing Plan (MLP) might ultimately determine the fate of its remaining wild lands. “You think there’s a lot of room out there, but there really isn’t” Korenblat says. “A lot of people say it’s really big, we can share. Well we can, but only if we plan really well.”
As evidenced from the air, planning didn’t play a big part in early resource development. It was more of a hilly nilly and let’s go get it type of thing. Environmental concerns were mostly non-existent until Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in 1970, which required at bare minimum, an environmental assessment of the impacts associated with development on federal public lands. Regulations were modified over the next three decades, but it wasn’t until backlash from the outgoing Bush administration’s fire sale of leases, near sensitive areas including Arches National Park, that the Obama administration ordered the Department of Interior to take a more comprehensive approach to leasing by developing MLP’s.
The Moab MLP, when finalized, will govern how and where oil, gas, and mineral development will occur on nearly 1 millon acres of public land in west-central Grand County and northern San Juan County. It will serve as an amendment to the area’s Resource Management Plan (RMP) that was finalized in 2008. The area includes all of the land south of I-70 to the northern border of Canyonlands National Park, and from US Hwy 191 west to the Green River. Also included are lands adjacent to Arches National Park, Porcupine Rim, and in the Hatch Point / Canyon Rims Recreation Area south of Moab.
Interest in oil, gas and potash in the area is high, creating significant pressure on recreation resources as well as lands proposed for wilderness designation under America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act. The outcome of the MLP process will be to identify new leasing stipulations, establish what the BLM calls “best management practices,” and to specify development constraints based on environmental impacts.
The plan will not affect valid, existing leases and as much as 25% of the total area is already leased for development. But for lands that are still up for lease, the plan includes a Controlled Surface Use (CSU) stipulation to minimize disturbance in sensitive areas. Sensitive areas include some lands determined by the BLM to have wilderness character, areas that have high visual quality, and areas managed for wildlife habitat and endangered species. Also included are lands with high recreation values.
Korenblat says that historically, recreation has been left out from a seat at the table of stakeholders when it comes to resource development decision-making, and she says the MLP provides an opportunity to strike a balance with recreation interests. “This plan is a breakthrough moment,” Korenblat said. “ This is the first time that recreation has been considered at the same time as oil and gas in the planning process.”
The draft EIS for the MLP is just that, a draft, and it will be open for public comment through November 19. The document presents four alternatives starting with Alternative A or No Action alternative, which is the least restrictive for development. Alternatives B and C place a higher emphasis on preservation, and the BLM’s preferred Alternative D, appears to seek a middle ground. In 2014, the Grand County Council sent a letter to the BLM saying that Alternative A was the only one they could support. The new council, in February of this year, retracted that position with new council member Mary McGann saying that, “Public lands support 47 percent of all our local jobs. We simply cannot take our public lands for granted. By implementing a smart-from-the-start plan, we can protect our parks and nearby public lands that drive our recreation economy, and ensure oil and gas drilling occurs responsibly and in the right places.”
The draft is receiving kudos from the recreation community as well as environmental organizations. Stephen Bloch, Legal Director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance said that, “The draft Moab Master Leasing Plan is a significant step toward better BLM management of oil, gas and other minerals in the heart of Utah’s red rock country.” Block said however, that though protection had been provided for iconic areas such as Fisher Towers, Porcupine Rim, Six Shooter Peaks and Gold Bar Canyon, additional protection was needed for Labyrinth Canyon, and other areas threatened by large-scale potash development such as Hatch Point and Indian Creek.
Public Land Solutions is also praising the document, but they are pushing to further broaden No Surface Occupancy restrictions near Labyrinth Canyon, and in all Special Recreation Management Areas including Canyon Rims, Indian Creek, and the Gemini Bridges area. They would also like to see a two mile buffer zone around some recreation areas, and a one mile set back from some trails, climbing, canyoneering, and filming locations.
As the plane banks over Lockhart Basin and then above Hatch Point / Canyon Rims, the land below still looks relatively undisturbed. Fidelity Exploration and Production did geo-seismic work in the area last fall, and there are known potash deposits below the surface, but for now, there is just another ribbon of dirt road headed north towards the Anticline Overlook. As we break over the rim, the deep red cutler sandstone of the Shafer Basin suddenly gives way to varying shades of turquoise blue. The terraced, solar evaporation ponds of the Intrepid Potash mine dominate the landscape as they rise up from the edge of the Colorado River, and spread out around the base of Dead Horse Point. For years, I have been flabbergasted at the incongruity of these ponds in such a location, and wondered how a decision to allow them there could ever have been made. Perhaps a little planning can help prevent future mistakes.
The Moab Master Leasing Plan (MLP) and Draft Resource Management Plan (RMP) Amendments/Draft Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) for the Moab and Monticello Field Offices is now available for your review and comment. The public comment period runs from August 21 through November 19, 2015.