For decades, mountain bikers have flocked to southern Utah’s Sand Flats to ride and camp among the undulating sandstone formations extending just east of Moab.
The Bureau of Land Management now proposes leasing the world-famous outdoor recreation hot spot for oil and gas drilling, even though this land has very low potential for producing energy. Under a plan to be opened for public comment on Feb. 20, the agency would auction two parcels on Sand Flats, one of which is barely a mile form Arches National Park, and five others in Grand County.
Compared with recent lease sales, held quarterly in online auctions, the June offerings are puny, covering about 5,000 acres. Yet they will likely court controversy — as was the case a few years ago, when the BLM proposed offering parcels for leasing near Zion National Park. It withdrew those patches after taking heat from Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and Washington County leaders.
Concerns about the Moab parcels arose shortly after the BLM identified them on its planning website.
“My concern is always that we maintain a balance in our valley and county and surrounding public lands. We know oil and gas are part of the makeup of our economy,” Moab Mayor Emily Niehaus said. “We have done a good job of saying where recreation goes and where extraction goes. My question is: Are the recreation areas going to be negatively impacted?”
She also worries that the lease parcels overlap the watershed that feeds springs in Grandstaff Canyon, where Moab draws its drinking water.
One lease parcel covers nearly two-thirds of the historic 10.5-mile Slickrock Trail, which put Moab on the map as a mountain bike magnet back in the 1980s. About 144 campsites line Sand Flats Road, which provides access to other marquee trails, such as Porcupine Rim and the Whole Enchilada for bikes and the motorized Hell’s Revenge and Fins & Things trails. The 9,000-acre area receives 160,000 visitors a year.
The BLM’s next auction is March 10, when it offers 25 parcels totaling more than 32,700 acres in the Uinta Basin. Some of these parcels also lie on or near two mountain bike trail networks, namely McCoy Flats and Halfway Hollow outside Vernal. The BLM opens a 30-day protest period Thursday on these offerings.
The Moab parcels were "nominated" for auction by an anonymous party on Nov. 27, just days before the BLM's deadline for the June sale, according to BLM spokeswoman Kim Finch.
“We welcome public input during the public comment period on these and any other parcels,” she said. The BLM generally maintains that leases are paper transactions that will not necessarily result in impacts on the ground, although it has recently been reevaluating past leasing decisions in Utah to consider climate impacts.
Under new rules encouraging energy development on public lands, the BLM now offers virtually any parcel nominated by industry on lands that are deemed open under drilling-friendly resource management plans adopted in 2008.
Some of these lands have long been valued for supporting recreation, scenic vistas and wildlife habitat and for containing hidden cultural resources left by ancient Native Americans.
Even though the BLM manages Sand Flats in partnership with Grand County for outdoor fun, it was included among the lands open for energy development under the 2008 plan for the Moab field office. It lies just outside the BLM’s Moab master leasing area established under President Barack Obama’s administration, which identifies places surrounding Arches and Canyonlands National parks that should not be drilled because of their popularity for cycling, climbing, hiking and four-wheeling.
In recognition of the importance of recreation, the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration in 2014 traded several sections it held in and around Sand Flats for energy-rich federal land in the Uinta Basin as part of a massive congressionally mandated land swap. Such a trade suggests Utah officials regard recreation as the highest and best use for Sand Flats, according to mountain bike guide Ashley Korenblat.
The BLM’s proposal to lease Sand Flats highlights the “irrational” consequences of President Donald Trump’s “American energy dominance” agenda, said Korenblat, who heads a Moab-based nonprofit called Public Lands Solutions. For the apparent sake of obligating as much land as possible for oil and gas development, she added, the BLM is now leasing lands with low potential for energy production at rock-bottom prices, even if the land is a recreation haven.
“This is very concerning because it is undermining decisions we made in Utah about how we should use that land,” Korenblat said. “It’s an irrational attack on our most famous bike trail and a model partnership between the county and the BLM.”
The two Sand Flats parcels carry stipulations that bar surface disturbances, like road building and drill pads, meaning that their hydrocarbons would have to be reached from adjacent lands through horizontal drilling. However, Sand Flats is sandwiched between wilderness study areas, Morning Glory to the north and and Mill Creek to the south, where drilling would not be allowed.
Even if someone leases the parcels for the minimum $1.50 an acre, it’s unclear how their minerals could be extracted.