The scenic sandstone wonderland known as the San Rafael Swell could hold a trove of hydrocarbons, but it is also full of rock art and artifacts left by ancient Native Americans.
A recent federal decision to lease parts of the swell for oil and gas development could jeopardize some of these archaeological resources, but the Bureau of Land Management has not adequately surveyed the lease parcels to determine what is there, according to an administrative protest filed Monday with the agency’s Salt Lake City office.
That oversight reflects BLM’s "lease first, think later" attitude that could usher drill rigs into one of Utah’s most cherished, yet unprotected landscapes, activists and outdoor industry representatives told a crowd of at least 200 protesters gathered outside the agency’s Gateway office for a noon rally.
"This proposed lease is occurring because the BLM is still operating under the Bush administration’s marching orders," said David Garbett, staff attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA). "It is time for the Obama administration to provide new guidance to the agency and remind it that national treasures, such as the San Rafael Swell, should not be sacrificed for a quick buck."
The crowd was demanding BLM pull 55 of the 82 parcels in Emery, Carbon and Uintah counties it plans to auction Nov. 19. Most of them, covering about 79,000 acres, are in and around the San Rafael Swell, an alluring outdoor destination only three hours from Salt Lake City.
These parcels are between or adjacent to existing leases around the swell’s northern periphery. Plugged wells dot this area, while to the northwest are dozens of active gas wells.
"We believe we have done our due diligence and they are appropriate for leasing," BLM spokeswoman Megan Crandall said.
But demonstrators argued the new leases could undermine what makes the swell special, as well as the state’s outdoor industry, an economic engine worth an estimated $12 billion.
Craig Otterstrom, the son of a coal miner who grew up in Castle Dale, has taken his children and their children to marvel at the swell’s shapes and colors.
"I hope my mind won’t be counting gas wells, flares, oil spills, roads and things that will not be there if I have my way," said Otterstrom, 76, "We don’t need to drill everywhere. With a little discretion and common sense we can decide where drilling should be and where it should not. San Rafael is the wrong place to drill."
This 1.2 million-acre warren of canyons, reefs and knobs in central Utah is a popular weekend destination for Salt Lake residents. Emery County leaders, however, support energy development there, as long as it occurs outside wilderness study areas.
BLM has already pulled parts of three parcels covering the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry after SUWA pointed out that key BLM planning documents indicate the quarry is off-limits to energy development.
Officials emphasized that a lease in itself doesn’t authorize work on the ground, which would be subject to site-specific analyses later. Many of the leases carry stipulations to protect the parcel’s cultural, wildlife and other values.
However, selling a lease obligates BLM to accommodate extraction of the parcel’s oil and gas, critics say.
"History shows what a dangerous slippery slope that is. We can’t afford to open that door when it comes to the San Rafael Swell," said Tim Wagner of the Sierra Club. While the leasing plan was under review last spring, BLM reached out to various tribes whose ancestors inhabited the swell.
The agency’s letter conceded that only a handful of the parcels had been surveyed for their cultural resources, and most of the surveys had occurred at least 10 years ago. Yet BLM concluded that oil and gas leasing posed "no adverse effect."
That didn’t sit well with the Hopi. In the tribe’s reply, cultural preservation officer Leigh Kuwanwisiwma insisted BLM conduct a sample survey of all the parcels before making such a determination.
According to an environmental review, the agency conducted no additional surveys, but it promised to modify drilling proposals as necessary to protect archaeological sites.
Joining SUWA and Sierra Club in the formal lease protest are The Wilderness Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Grand Canyon Trust, Rocky Mountain Wild, Great Old Broads and Utah Rivers Council.
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