John Harja, former director of the Utah Public Lands Policy Coordination Office, says the purpose of a deal among the federal Bureau of Land Management and officials of the state and Uintah County is to protect two rare desert flowers.
Odd, then, that if the two varieties of beardtongue penstemon are declared to be endangered under the Endangered Species Act, the deal to limit surface damage in core penstemon habitat would be dissolved.
It seems probable that the Utah lands office is concerned more specifically about the oil shale industry — or, more accurately, the idea of an oil shale industry — than it is about the Graham’s and White River penstemons.
Tony Frates, who works with the Utah Native Plant Society, rightly points out that, without opposition from his group and others like it, the BLM would have already allowed energy development in the Uinta Basin that would potentially harm the plants.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will decide whether the rare plants that grow on shale containing oil are in such dire straits that they need protection under the ESA. If so, about 74,000 acres would be designated as critical habitat to ensure the plants’ survival.
The BLM deal, on the other hand, would limit surface disturbance on just 44,000 acres, mostly on federal land.
Other portions of the plants’ habitat is on land owned by the School Institutional Trust Lands Administration, which is already allowing experimental oil shale surface mining. SITLA’s sole purpose is to use its lands for profit, which goes into a trust for Utah schools. No help for the penstemon there.
But why make such a fuss over a couple of small, seemingly insignificant flowers to the point of blocking oil shale development in Utah?
The answer may be best stated in another question: Why allow road building, drilling and other activities that run roughshod over what remains of Utah’s water supply and the fragile eastern desert that’s home to threatened plants and animals when oil shale remains not much more than a gleam in the eye of those who would benefit from it?
Oil shale in the Uinta Basin is not commercially viable. Many say it never will produce much oil or many long-term jobs. Utah should be moving away from fossil fuels toward renewable energy development. Land and species conservation should not take a back seat to a proposition that, even if feasible, could do irreparable harm to the only environment we humans have.
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