Erika Pollard: Hovenweep leases put short-sighted gain ahead of a balanced future

(Jim Urquhart | The Salt Lake Tribune File Photo) Wendy and Scott Henderson of Livermore California tour the historic ruins of a pueblo people in July 2006 at Hovenweep National Monument in southern Utah.

Over the course of a morning’s bidding and with little regard for public opinion, more than 30,000 acres of our state’s precious public lands near Hovenweep National Monument were recently auctioned off to oil and gas developers.

The Bureau of Land Management’s latest leasing of our public lands is a staggering blow to Utah residents and tribal communities who value our shared historical and cultural connections to these places. Short-sighted gains for a few oil developers were clearly prioritized over a more balanced vision for us all.

As Utah residents, we are fortunate to have such a spectacular treasure as Hovenweep National Monument right here in our state. The dark night skies and sweeping, unspoiled views it offers us – and the thousands of visitors who flock here each year – are exceptional and memorable. These experiences are possible precisely because oil and gas development has not occurred significantly around the park. All of that could drastically change with development of these new leases, which could also further degrade air quality, pollute groundwater and tarnish the overall visitor experiences.

Even more alarming are the threats facing the region’s rich cultural heritage. These lands lie between Hovenweep, Bears Ears and Canyons of the Ancients National Monuments. The lands are the ancestral homeland to many pueblos and culturally significant to tribes throughout the region. As little as 4% per parcel of the leased land around Hovenweep has been surveyed for cultural and archaeological sites, like the ancestral Puebloan structures for which Hovenweep is renowned. How can we protect this history when we don’t fully know what is at stake?

Unfortunately, the recent lease sale is part of a broader effort by the Trump administration, which has sold leases near more than 20 national parks and offered little to no opportunity for the public to weigh in. The cultural landscape surrounding Hovenweep is the latest area to fall victim to this reckless, expedited energy agenda.

Prior to the Trump administration taking office, the Utah BLM staff had recognized the importance of the landscape surrounding Hovenweep National Monument and was slated to develop a comprehensive development and conservation plan for the region. Such planning processes previously brought together stakeholders including oil and gas industry, communities, tribal interests and conservation organizations to take a closer look at the impacts of development on sensitive landscapes as well as the many nondrilling uses of the land. This encouraged the BLM to truly manage public lands under its mandate of “multiple uses.”

Times have changed and the Trump administration has consistently targeted this region for development — first by reducing the neighboring Bears Ears National Monument by nearly 85% and leaving that previously protected landscape open to mineral, oil and gas development.

In recent months, the Trump administration has actively ignored requests, not only from the public but also from a broad range of tribal, business, conservation and local elected leaders, to protect the lands around Hovenweep National Monument. Letters asking the BLM and Utah Governor Gary Herbert to stop the advancement of these leases around Hovenweep were sent from the All Pueblo Council of Governors, San Juan County Commission, Navajo Utah Commission, Town of Bluff, and the National Parks Conservation Association, among others. All apparently fell on deaf ears.

Only last year, the BLM leased more than 60,000 acres of public lands near Hovenweep. This also lacked proper consultation with nearby tribal communities and a comprehensive inventory of the cultural resources at risk. The national trend towards energy dominance is starkly evident in Utah, where areas are quickly offered to the highest bidder with little regard to the future.

We are sacrificing our irreplaceable historic and cultural legacies, our vibrant outdoor tourism industry, and our shared access to beautiful and revitalizing natural spaces. We need a long-term vision for the future of Hovenweep and surrounding landscapes and urge Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and other leaders to take action before this piece of Utah’s outdoor heritage is damaged forever.

Erika Pollard | Southwest Associate Director for the National Parks Conservation Association

Erika Pollard is the southwest associate director for the National Parks Conservation Association.