Our national parks are often called "America’s Best Idea" because they preserve our scenic beauty, our culture, and our history as a nation. But these national treasures have always existed as part of a shared landscape, surrounded by Bureau of Land Management, which manages millions of acres under multiple use, including oil and gas development — a use that is not usually allowed in national park units.
In 2008 controversy erupted when oil and gas drilling leases were offered near Arches and Canyonlands national parks threatening the scenery millions of people from across the country and the world annually head to our state to enjoy.
In an effort to alleviate such controversies in the future, the U.S. Department of the Interior, including the National Park Service, worked hard to create a "smart from the start" oil and gas leasing process called Master Leasing Plans (MLPs) — a direct response to the 2008 incident.
The idea behind MLPs is to study and discuss impacts to areas where the most potential conflicts exist between oil and gas development, recreation and conservation.
While Utah’s production of oil and gas is now exceeding the pre-recession levels of 2008, the state is simultaneously enjoying a burgeoning recreation and tourism industry, robust to the point where Gov. Gary Herbert, recognizing its significant economic values, last year established a first-in-the-nation Office of Outdoor Recreation. Continued differences between energy development and conservation and recreation near our national parks are thus inevitable.
Amid this challenging atmosphere, the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) wants to reduce conflicts by supporting the MLP process with the release of a new report, A Responsible Process: Using Master Leasing Plans to Balance Sensible Energy Development and the Protection of National Parks.
We have supported the MLP process from its introduction in 2010, believing that if stakeholders engage in the process before leases are granted, the interests of conservation and recreation can be protected while developers can feel more secure that their projects will progress with less opposition. Simply put: Planning first, leasing later resolves issues at the front end of the process and likely minimizes the potential of litigation down the line.
This coming week Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, a staunch advocate for the role MLPs can play in helping guide development to areas of high conservation and recreation value and low environmental concern, will attend the Outdoor Retailer Winter Market in Salt Lake City.
It’s vital she hear from Utahns about the best way to provide for responsible oil and gas production while protecting Utah’s national parks — and the vibrant economies they support — is through smart planning before leases are offered for sale.
Jewell’s on-going support for the MLP process is crucial. We hope she will continue to press for MLPs, urging the BLM and the NPS to undertake the process in areas where national parks may be affected. In addition to the current MLP in progress near Arches and Canyonlands, MLPs should be implemented at Dinosaur National Monument, near New Mexico’s Chaco Culture National Historical Park, and near Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park and Yucca House National Monument where energy development on adjacent BLM land is under review.
Utah and the rest of the West need not choose between energy development, recreational economies, and scenic beauty. With the smart planning and forethought, MLPs provide, a truly reasonable balance can be reached.
David Nimkin is southwest senior regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association.
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