Jim Sayers: Don’t sacrifice the beauty of Hovenweep for oil wells

(Tribune file photo) Wendy and Scott Henderson of Livermore, Calif., tour Hovenweep National Monument in southern Utah in 2006.

The following is an open letter to Gov. Gary Herbert.

No doubt a lot of oil lies beneath the surface in San Juan County. The Greater Aneth Field in extreme southeastern Utah, first struck in 1956, has produced around 150 million barrels of oil so far of an estimated 450 million barrels in the formation. And the Bureau of Land Management here in Utah is hot to get that oil out of the ground and turned into money.

So hot, in fact, that completed and scheduled BLM Oil and Gas Lease parcels in 2018 and 2019 more than double the number sold before 2018.

Within a brief 60 years, this area has emerged from a cocoon where time stood still to — well, time still seems to stand still when it’s about 105 degrees. But the cocoon is open for business.

In a recent visit to the proposed lease sale lands, if I squinted my eyes, I could imagine seeing my father’s blue Pontiac company car kicking up dust on a road circa 1957, delivering trunks full of drill bits to rigs that are now pump jacks where the canyon floors flatten out.

The U.S. and Utah have come a long way from that blue Pontiac. Not so sure about the BLM, though. Earlier this year, the BLM acknowledged the need for additional environmental analysis before proceeding with these massive proposed lease sales on these federal lands because of nearness to Hovenweep.

I like to imagine two other facts which are less widely acknowledged, but are nonetheless true influenced the decision to delay: 1. Hovenweep-related cultural sites are thick over lease areas between Blanding and the Colorado border; Hovenweep itself was the center of a large cultural region, and 2. The people who built Hovenweep created some of the world’s most compelling art.

Chiselling – “pecking” lines in the dark, shiny, oxidized surfaces of rock varnished by centuries of wind and rain — Hovenweep artists created complex line images in the pinkish rock thus exposed. A final verdict on the meaning of the images is elusive. As art, though, the images emerge as if from dreams we don’t quite remember when awakened, forms archived together in the canyon heat in some unknowable but clearly human order.

Different artists, different variations in style, some right next to each other but separated by many centuries, swirl around each other on the rock faces under the timeless sun. Standing before these works, in the searing, still air, smelling the earth as the artists smelled it, it’s enough to say the BLM made a wise decision to defer the sale. The only thing predictable about the location of these sites is that they are everywhere over the 32,000 acres that will be up for lease.

Yet only months later, the leases are back on the table. Just as troubling, the BLM has done away with a tool (Master Lease Plans) that could have accomplished win-win landscape-level planning, setting aside areas too special to drill.

Gov. Herbert, here is my pitch: I respectfully request the governor to weigh in and ask the BLM to defer leasing these parcels until the concerns expressed by numerous constituencies in our state have been resolved. These constituencies include tribal governments, at least one local business organization and others.

We are cognizant of the revenue importance to Utah of these leases. My father worked the oil business most of his life. However, dad never confused allegiance to oil wealth with his commitment to his sons’ future success and happiness, and I hope we can think of our state in the same way.

Jim Sayers, a member of the Bluff Town Council, is an emeritus professor at the University of New Mexico. He has owned a home in Bluff since 1983.

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