Moab’s Slickrock Trail spared from energy leasing as BLM withdraws plans

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Mountain bikers ride the practice loop on the famed Slickrock Trail near Moab, April 20, 2001. The BLM has abandoned plans to lease much of the 10.5-mile trail and the surrounding Sand Flats Recreation Areas for oil and gas drilling.

Under pressure from elected Utah officials, the Bureau of Land Management on Friday decided against selling leases near Moab that could have exposed the famed Slickrock Trail to oil and gas development.

Last month, the BLM identified parcels it was considering for lease at its June auction, including two on the Sand Flats Recreation Area that Grand County manages in partnership with the federal agency. That possibility prompted unanimous opposition from the Grand County and Moab councils, both of them raising concerns about potential impacts to local water sources, and a request from Gov. Gary Herbert to “defer” these parcels.

“The governor appreciates the unique beauty of the Slickrock area and wants to ensure that nothing is done that would be detrimental to the visitor experience or local water quality," said Herbert spokeswoman Anna Lehnardt.

Sand Flats and the Slickrock Trail are key components of Moab’s booming outdoor economy; allowing drilling there ignores the importance of recreation in southeast Utah, business leaders said this week. Moab Mayor Emily Niehaus lauded the BLM’s retreat as proof the agency can be responsive to local needs, even if those needs don’t align with the pro-development agenda of the Trump administration.

“Let’s celebrate this decision because they are listening,” Niehaus said. “I am deeply grateful to our governor. The state of Utah is doing a good job of balancing the economic implications of our public lands. This move says to me we have a partner in the governor’s office. We have a partner in the BLM. We are moving forward.”

Located barely a mile from Arches National Park, the two lease parcels would have covered about two-thirds of the 10.5-mile Slickrock Trail. The larger 9,000-acre Sand Flats area is visited by 160,000 people a year.

In an announcement Friday, BLM officials acknowledged officials and businesses raised legitimate issues about these parcels, which had been anonymously nominated for development in November.

“Recreation access is a priority of ours — as well as responsible energy development — and both provide important economic benefits to Utah," said BLM acting Canyon Country District Manager Brian Quigley. "As a resident, recreator and manager of public lands in Moab, I understand the public’s concerns.”

Added Moab Field Office Manager Nicollee Gaddis-Wyatt: "We have successfully co-managed the Sand Flats Special Recreation Management Area with Grand County since 1994, and we value that enduring relationship. We are also proud to manage a mountain biking trail system that is internationally renowned and enjoyed by many.”

The BLM did a similar about-face in 2017, when it proposed leasing land outside Zion National Park, then changed its mind after the governor and Washington County officials raised objections.

Under President Donald Trump, the BLM has taken an aggressive leasing posture, issuing drilling rights on thousands of acres across Utah, often for bargain-basement prices. In many instances, industry failed to offer the minimum $2-an-acre bid for lease parcels at auction, then bought them over the counter for $1.50.

Trump’s “American energy dominance” strategy, which calls for removing impediments to development on public lands, has proved problematic after environmental groups successfully petitioned the Interior Department to reexamine dozens of Utah leases on grounds that they were issued without sufficient analysis of environmental impacts.

Next week, the BLM opens a 30-day public comment period on its environmental analysis on a handful of leases elsewhere in Grand County to be auctioned in June.

Meanwhile, the agency will offer 25 parcels totaling more than 32,700 acres in the Uinta Basin, at its March 10 auction. Some of the lease parcels lie on or near the McCoy Flats and Halfway Hollow bike trail networks.