Federal land managers are moving forward with a proposed sale of controversial oil and gas leases in Utah’s San Rafael Swell and on the doorstep of Dinosaur National Monument, the agency announced Friday.
The move comes despite misgivings from Uintah County and National Park Service officials, who fear that energy development would detract from Dinosaur’s scenic allure.
Gov. Gary Herbert had asked the BLM to “re-evaluate” three leases bordering the Utah half of Dinosaur. BLM agreed to “defer” two of the leases, but a third is to be sold along with 74 others at the BLM’s quarterly auction to be held online Dec. 11.
In a decision released Friday, Kent Hoffman, the BLM’s deputy state director for minerals, wrote the agency had put adequate conditions on the leases to reduce potential impacts from oil and gas development and to protect nearby natural resources and public lands.
The BLM posted its final environmental assessments for lease sales tied to its Vernal and Price field offices, spanning 94,000 acres in Uintah, Duchesne and Emery counties. A protest period is open through Oct. 2 and several groups intend to file.
“Issuing oil and gas leases on wilderness-quality lands loved and used by the public, and at the doorsteps to these iconic places continues a disturbing trend to blindly sacrifice our public lands to the fossil fuel industry, without considering impacts to the environment, people or these irreplaceable landscapes,” said Nada Culver, The Wilderness Society’s director of policy and planning.
Many of the leases cover places along the western reefs of the San Rafael Swell that were the focus of a leasing controversy in 2013. The BLM pulled them from consideration in response to concerns about rock art sites the agency had not surveyed.
The Utah Rock Art Research Association has since documented an abundance of Barrier Canyon-style paintings and Fremont pictographs and petroglyphs. Group member Diane Orr called the area “rich” in rock art.
“There’s some very interesting features that could tell us a lot about the Fremont culture. It was an important place in the ancient world,” said Orr. “We will continue to try to persuade the BLM to take a different course. We aren’t Democrats or Republicans. We just want this area preserved.”
While conservationist were cheered by the two Dinosaur deferrals, both parcels could come up again soon for consideration.
One parcel was held because the BLM has not been able to identify who owns the surface, which is under active irrigation. The energy company that anonymously “nominated” the site had provided the agency with incorrect information, according to Gary Torres, the BLM manager who oversees the Green River district.
For the second parcel, the BLM is working with the National Park Service to identify ways it can be developed without impairing the park’s values, such has dark night skies, natural soundscape and breathtaking views, according to Torres.
“We said let’s defer so we can have more conversation,” Torres said. The parcel that will be auctioned for lease is barely visible from the monument’s entrance road.
“We strive for responsible energy development,” Torres said. ”We think we can protect those resources and the public will have another chance to weigh in on the [drilling application] if it gets to that point.”
The National Parks Conservation Association objected to another three parcels near but not abutting the monument.
“We cannot keep Dinosaur the wild and wonderful place it is if we allow oil rigs on its borders,” said the group’s southwest regional director, David Nimkin. “Development of these four parcels which together are within the direct view of the park’s Quarry Visitor Center and the world famous Carnegie Fossil Quarry.”
Some of the lands to be leased are within areas that the BLM has been studing for so-called “master leasing plans,” initiated by former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in an effort to more carefully guide oil and gas drilling near national parks and other sensitive areas valued for outdoor recreation and cultural resources, such as ancient rock art and archaeological sites.
But her successor Ryan Zinke has instructed Interior agencies to lower barriers to energy development on public land and now the BLM is leasing inside areas under review for master leasing plans.
Mike Murray, a retired park superintendent who serves on the board of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, said the move was a sign BLM was drifting from its commitment to finish master planning before leasing outside the monument.
And Torres on Friday conceded that under Interior’s new leadership, the BLM has shelved ongoing master plans, which had also been proposed for the San Rafael and Cisco deserts and San Juan County near lands that are now part of Bears Ears National Monument. For Utah, only Moab’s MLP was completed, while Colorado BLM officials completed one for lands surrounding Dinosaur’s eastern half.
The coalition on Tuesday sent a letter signed by 350 former park service staffers to Zinke, expressing dismay with the uptick in leasing near parks. Among those signing the letter are retired park superintendents Donald Falvey (Zion) and Denny Huffman (Dinosaur) and former Utah coordinators Cordell Roy and Denis Davis
“As former land managers,” said the letter, “we understand the need to balance competing priorities. But we fear the pendulum is swinging too far to the side of development.”
“Our national parks are not meant to be islands in seas of development,” the letter continues. “There are many other places on our public lands where industry can pursue oil and gas leasing without threatening the majestic scenery, wildlife, visitor experience, and dark night skies that make our national parks such special places.”