The American West conjures up images of breathtaking, expansive terrain and solitary figures on horseback in the minds of many. In reality, communities populated with families of many cultures with rich histories going back generations lay between these vast landscapes.
How these communities and cultures relate to each other, and with land management officials, is something I understand firsthand. The current atmosphere in this interrelationship when it comes to decisions affecting oil and gas leasing near the region’s national parks does not bode well.
When I was young, my dad worked in southwest Colorado at Mesa Verde National Park, a park well known for its Puebloan cliff dwellings. Local tribal members worked at the park, and their bond to their ancestral land made a lasting impression on me.
I went on to my own career in the National Park Service, serving at sites nationwide, including here in Utah, as state coordinator for six years and another three in my final position before retirement as superintendent at Zion National Park. Between my two NPS stints in Utah, I served as deputy director for the Utah Department of Natural Resources. My last position as a federal land manager was as the Bureau of Land Management state director for Montana and the Dakotas.
Like many with extensive experience in public land management, I, too, have strong connections to this extraordinary acreage that belongs to all Americans and to the wealth of cultural history it contains. The current processes taking place for oil and gas leasing adversely affect both. The Canyon Country lease sale near two national monuments, Hovenweep National Monument in southeastern Utah and Canyon of the Ancients across the border in Colorado, particularly worries me.
I’m not alone in my misgivings. NPS has raised concerns, specifically requesting that 13 parcels, approximately 1,800 acres, all within 15 miles of Hovenweep, be deferred from the sale. Negative impacts on night skies, natural sound and overall visitor experience were cited in the agency’s comments.
Historic preservationists and other groups have protested parcels based on impacts to archaeological resources. During my professional tenure, projects that involved potential disturbance of American Indian cultural artifacts included a consultation with tribal leaders and specialists. This helped us make more informed decisions throughout the process.
Public land employees are required to follow procedures when dealing with multiple uses of the lands they manage. When done correctly, these procedures include a healthy dose of public involvement.
Lately BLM leasing decisions are sacrificing sound analysis and public engagement for a rush into increasing lease sales that the market does not demand. This approach doesn’t work. When there is little consultation with interested parties of all stripes, the entire situation can turn churlish.
Involving all parties, including industry, communities, businesses and the public, early in the process is key. It is imperative to meet with people of differing opinions and discuss not only the cultural and environmental aspects, but also the economic benefits — the dollars and sense. It��s important to remember that visitation to Hovenweep and Canyon of the Ancients is a growing economic driver of the region.
There are recent examples of this collaborative approach right here in Utah. Last June, after nearby communities collectively spoke up, the BLM listened and removed specific parcels on the doorstep of Zion National Park from an oil and gas lease sale.
The BLM can do the right thing again and defer parcels closest to Hovenweep and Canyon of the Ancients to protect these culturally significant areas. I hope they do it. Our public lands and their shared cultural history depend on it.
Martin Ott comes from generations of Garfield County ranchers and farmers. In addition to him, members of his family from three generations including his father, mother, daughter, son and uncles have all worked for the National Park Service. Ott spent a total of 37 of years with NPS across the U.S. in addition to his positions with the Bureau of Land Management and the Utah Department of Natural Resources. Upon his retirement in 2005, he and his wife, Ilene, settled in Kanab.