Ashley Korenblat: ‘Energy dominance’ agenda fails Utah’s outdoor recreation economy

(Salt Lake Tribune | Brian Maffly) Members of the Uintah High School mountain bike team practice on the McCoy Flats trails southwest of Vernal.

In Utah, trails = economic development.

From our internationally renowned destinations, like Moab and Park City, to a growing number of rural Utah communities that are investing in access to Utah’s great outdoors, trails lead to revenue flows from both visitors and businesses who want to locate in places with a high quality of life. Large and small, new and old, companies across Utah depend on access to our out-of-doors to recruit and retain employees, and in turn we depend upon these companies to provide jobs for our growing population.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s Department of Interior continues to endanger Utah’s winning formula by prioritizing oil and gas development over recreation assets like trails. And the worst part is they are auctioning off these public lands for next to nothing.

Recently, the Bureau of Land Management, offered the oil and gas industry roughly 33,000 acres of land for oil and gas drilling in several prime recreation areas, including McCoy Flats, Vernal’s most important trail system.

And at this month’s oil and gas lease auction, many of these parcels sold for less than a cup of coffee per acre. Since 2017, the Interior Department has offered almost one million acres of Utah’s public land to the oil and gas industry, while ignoring three important facts: 1) Only 50% of Utah’s existing oil and gas leases have been developed, so we have plenty of back stock. 2) The BLM has been leasing lands since 1920 and the most productive lands are already leased, so these remaining lands, like those around McCoy Flats are likely to have low potential. 3) We have a better use for these lands right now — recreation trails.

If you’re wondering why this situation sounds eerily familiar, it’s because it is. Just last month, the BLM attempted to lease critical landscapes in Moab, Utah, including huge portions of the world-famous Slickrock Bike Trail. However, after concerned residents, community leaders, local officials, 80 outdoor recreation business owners and Gov. Gary Herbert came together in shared opposition, BLM deferred the most problematic parcels. Unfortunately, many valuable recreation parcels, such as those near the Green River’s Labyrinth Canyon, remain on the chopping block

Times are changing in Utah and across the West. Rural economies, like Moab, are no longer dependent on the boom and bust cycles of drilling and mining, as outdoor recreation has become an $877 billion dollar industry. In Utah alone, it now supports an estimated 110,000 jobs resulting in more than $3.9 billion in wages and salaries, which does not even include the non-recreation related businesses who use Utah’s great outdoors to attract talent.

Outdoor recreation is a critical component of Utah’s entire economy. Our businesses and livelihoods depend on public lands in their natural state. Neither locals nor visitors will choose to recreate near industrial sites with heavy truck traffic and questionable air quality.

The administration’s complete disregard for the needs of local communities makes this situation even more egregious. Just last March, President Trump signed the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act, which formally designated the McCoy Flats trail system and biking area. At the time, BLM emphasized that it looked forward to “working with local communities, counties and the State of Utah to … protect recreation opportunities and access on public lands.”

Yet now, in spite of our well-articulated concerns against these lease sales, the administration has made no changes to its “energy dominance” agenda. Instead, it proceeded to lease mountain bike trails near McCoy Flats despite the Uintah’s County’s own master trails plan that identifies these trails as a top priority for recreation asset development.

The decision to lease another 33,000 acres of Utah’s public lands to oil and gas companies did not have our state’s best interest in mind. Of course we need energy, including oil and gas, but we need to update the leasing process to meet today’s needs.

Our local BLM offices should be empowered to meet local community needs. In more and more places in Utah those needs include creating and managing new recreation assets, not auctioning oil and gas leases when demand is at its lowest. We expect our elected officials at both the local and federal level to protect Utah’s strong economy by better management of our public lands.

Ashley Korenblat

Ashley Korenblat is CEO of Western Spirit Cycling, Moab.