Bluff • In the stretch of public and tribal lands between the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah and Sleeping Ute Mountain in Colorado is a checkerboard of oil and gas rigs. This is the area land conservation and Indigenous people call the Lands In Between, and where the galaxies, including the Milky Way, illuminate the red canyon floors at night.
The land is also home to Hovenweep National Monument, one of Utah’s darkest national parks recognized as a gold-tier International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association, and Canyon of the Ancients, another dark sky park.
Environmental groups have long fought to protect this region, which is known for its archeology and cliff-side ancestral Puebloan homes. But they now argue dark skies are another reason to limit oil and gas production in the region.
In 2018 and 2019, the BLM auctioned off 32 leases in eastern San Juan County. The Biden administration paused all new leasing on public lands earlier this year, but advocates say if the existing leases get developed, drilling could impact cultural wonders like Hovenweep and Canyon of the Ancients.
“A clear view of the Milky Way is a rare but highly valued thing for most humans on the planet,” says Erika Pollard, associate director for the southwest region of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA). “National parks are a refuge for dark night skies along with natural quiet and other natural and cultural values.”
“Air, light and sound pollution from oil and gas development can obscure the night sky, disrupt the long expansive views, degrade the visitor experience, and harm people’s health,” Pollard said.
Western Energy Alliance, an industry group that represents oil and gas drilling companies in the West, didn’t respond to a request for comment about the leases.
Stargazing is only part of the issue for the nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa (FCM), which sued the Trump Administration for issuing leases to the oil and gas industry and says that more than 100,000 acres are leased for potential development.
“Of course, we are concerned about the impact on dark skies, but our main concern lies within the cultural resources of the area,” said Jocelyn Meyers, FCM’s Communications and Development Director. “This is one of the most archaeologically rich areas in the United States open to oil and gas leasing.”
And then there’s the larger issue of developing oil and gas while the earth is warming.
At an Aug. 10 town hall hosted by Rep. John Curtis-R, residents of Bluff and the nearby Navajo Nation pressed the congressman on preserving the Lands In Between and on his plan to tackle climate change.
Curtis was open to studying the issue and said he would coordinate visits to the Lands In Between on his next trip down to San Juan County to learn about any impacts from the oil and gas leasing.
“As a Republican and someone who is conservative, we are branded as not caring for the environment. I think that’s not true,” Curtis told the 20 people who gathered to hear him speak. Curtis, who sits on the House Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change, added that he has been able to hold climate change conversations with at least 25 Republican colleagues.
San Juan County Commissioner Willie Grayeyes (Diné) says, on behalf of the commission, he opposes any more oil and gas drilling in the Lands In Between, even if it means reduced royalties. “Those are the areas we have not been approving and I get the bulk of, ‘You guys are not doing your job. And we’re not going to receive the royalties.’ That’s what they look for. Nonetheless, on the other side to me is the carbon emissions.”
Correction: August 17, 6:00 a.m. This article was updated to clarify that Erika Pollard is the associate director for the southwest region of National Parks Conservation Association.