For the third time since last year, the Bureau of Land Management is auctioning oil and gas leases on archaeologically rich canyons and mesas in San Juan County, but this time in the face of opposition from local elected and business leaders, tribal officials, the National Park Service and the federal government’s own Advisory Council on Historic Preservation — all saying the BLM has not adequately reviewed the potential for future energy development to tear the region’s historic fabric.

Starting Monday, 19 parcels covering 32,000 acres are to be sold at the BLM’s quarterly online auction, coming on top of 36 other disputed parcels leased last year in this same area east of Blanding.

The San Juan County Commission weighed in Tuesday with a resolution calling on the BLM to “defer the sale to prevent the degradation of cultural heritage resources, dark skies, natural resources, visitor experience, water quality, and air quality in the area,” while other groups, including the Navajo Utah Commission, are pressuring Utah Gov. Gary Herbert to intervene.

Last year, the BLM leased 62,000 acres, much of it to an obscure company with no history in the energy industry, on these lands northwest of Hovenweep National Monument. Considered a “cultural landscape," it is riven with canyons teeming with kivas, cliff dwellings, masonry structures, rock art, burial sites and other remnants of Ancestral Puebloan civilization.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The BLM has suspended those earlier leases while it conducts further analysis in response to lawsuits brought by environmental groups. That analysis is limited to greenhouse gas emissions associated with the leases, even though the suits are more broadly focused on cumulative impacts.

This landscape around Alkali Ridge, Tin Cup Mesa and Montezuma Canyon are a less-scenic version of the more famous Bears Ears region to the west, yet it contains a lot more known oil and gas deposits and a lot fewer restrictions on energy development.

Bidding on drilling rights here have been competitive with parcels fetching between $40 and $90 an acre at last year’s auctions.

The BLM’s environmental review concluded leasing would have “no adverse effect” on cultural resources, although they have yet to be fully surveyed and the proposed leases carry none of the customary stipulations barring surface disturbance in sensitive places. The BLM’s review said site-specific analysis at the time of drilling would adequately identify locations for well pads that won’t harm cultural resources.

That’s not good enough, according to the opponents, many with an interest, both spiritual or economic, in the area’s nonenergy resources.

“These lands, nestled between Bears Ears and Hovenweep national monuments, protect the layered cultural history that we Utahns hold dear,” Bluff Mayor Ann Leppanen wrote in a letter last week to Herbert. “We urge you to work with the BLM on a long-term planning solutions for the area to better balance the multiple uses that benefit local communities, the Tribes, visitors, business organizations, and the state.”

The governor’s office declined an opportunity to comment Friday.

The BLM plans to lease another nine parcels here at its December auction. After these sales, oil and gas leases will cover nearly everything from Recapture Canyon east to the Colorado line, and south of Alkali Ridge to the Navajo Reservation, according to Landon Newell, staff attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, an environmental group.

Critics such as Leppanen fear that once this landscape is covered in leases, it could soon be overrun with drill rigs, new roads and pipelines, turning this area into a “single-use landscape.”

Currently, several old wells dating back to the 1980s and earlier continue to produce marginal quantities of oil, while others have been abandoned. New drilling technologies could have better luck turning this chronically underperforming oil field into a busy place.

While it would produce lots of revenue, such an outcome may not be in San Juan County residents’ best interests, according to County Commissioner Willie Grayeyes.

“We are talking about water, we are talking about culturally sensitive sites‚” he said at Tuesday’s commission meeting in support of the resolution opposing the lease sale. He wants to see measures in place that guarantee drilling and oil production will not harm the environment.

Casting the sole vote against the resolution, County Commissioner Bruce Adams said leasing does not necessarily mean the land will get drilled. Opposing lease sales could deprive Bluff and the county of grants from the Community Impact Board, on which Adams serves. This board disburses federal mineral revenues to counties and cities affected by mineral development.

“I don’t see how the sale puts us at risk,” he said. “It is when the application to drill comes that we might object to actual drilling because of the possibility to denigrate cultural sites.”

Critics, however, argue that leasing is the stage where the BLM can ensure drilling is done right, but the agency has not done its homework in this case. And it’s not just left-leaning political leaders asking for a leasing pause.

Repeating past concerns, the National Park Service has asked the BLM to not lease the 19 parcels, which are between 4.5 and 21 miles from Hovenweep National Monument. Most are even closer to the BLM-administered Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in Colorado.

"Despite the distance from Hovenweep, we believe that oil and gas exploration and development on these parcels will be detrimental to the visitor experience in the monument and surrounding lands, and will negatively affect resources important to Hovenweep," monument officials wrote in their comments to the BLM's environmental analysis.

In its response, the BLM said holding back the parcels would be “inconsistent” with its resource management plan and “contrary” to current agency policy, largely shaped by President Donald Trump’s “American energy dominance” agenda that calls for lowering barriers to develop energy on public lands.

In moving forward with the sale, the BLM is ignoring the recommendations it solicited from the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation back in April. That panel concluded leasing would adversely affect cultural sites, yet the BLM’s analysis of the proposed leases did not acknowledge these impacts or provide instructions to mitigate them. Before any additional leasing here, the council recommended, the BLM should complete a “programmatic agreement" that would consider historic properties.

Such an agreement sounds a lot like the “master leasing plans” then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell initiated a few years ago for energy-rich public lands near national parks, such as those in eastern San Juan County. The BLM never got around to assembling a San Juan plan before Jewell’s Trump-appointed successor Ryan Zinke pulled the plug on the master leasing program, which the energy industry and its congressional allies had castigated as a bureaucratic boondoggle.

But without master leasing plans in place, however, it appears the BLM cannot guarantee energy development would occur in eastern San Juan County in ways that are acceptable to Native Americans and historic preservationists. The All Pueblo Council of Governors, representing 19 tribal groups whose members descended from the inhabitants of these canyons, is now urging Herbert to stand up for “careful preservation” and to call on the BLM to scuttle next week’s sale.

“The area in which these leases are located is in a rich ancestral Puebloan landscape, critical to the ongoing identity of our member Pueblos,” the group’s chairman, E. Paul Torres, wrote in an Aug. 22 letter. “For us, they have an even deeper meaning, as these resources represent our cultural resources gifted to us by our ancestors; which we have relied on and are connected to, even to today.”