Cordell Roy: We must protect Utah’s Red Rock landscapes

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) This Sept. 15, 2015, photo shows Zion National Park near Springdale, Utah.

In this time of national emergency, it may seem relatively trivial to concern oneself with anything other than our own personal and community well-being. However, the well-being of our environment and public lands that contribute to Utahns quality of life is also experiencing ongoing threats. Those of us concerned with the continuing and relentless oil and gas leasing pressure in Red Rock country must remain vigilant.

For 38 years, I helped manage some of our nation’s spectacular national park sites, with nearly half that time in Utah working with land managers, state leaders and partners to protect park resources. We all love and value the beautiful landscapes of Utah and what they offer in terms of outdoor recreational experiences, vast, remote wilderness and the connections they provide to past and present cultures. But many areas within those landscapes are also sought by energy companies seeking to drill for oil and gas. Finding the balance between these demands is an ongoing challenge, but I thought we had successfully found that balance near Moab with the collaborative success of the Moab master-leasing plan.

A proposed sale of oil and gas leases at the end of the Bush administration in 2008 brought these issues to a head. That administration offered to lease land for oil and gas drilling that would harm the visitor experience we were trying to protect in Arches and Canyonlands national parks by threatening to industrialize the landscape surrounding them. Because of this and the public and agency objections that ensued, the Department of Interior implemented master-leasing plans that struck a balance between environmental concerns and energy development in the region. And crucially, included in that vision was that the national parks and adjacent public lands that draw millions of people every year would be protected.

However, this fragile peace in the region that has lasted for over a decade is now at risk of falling apart. The oil and gas industry recently targeted nearly every possible acre of land they can grab between Arches, Canyonlands and Labyrinth Canyon. In total, more than 150,000 acres have been targeted for oil and gas drilling. This is double the size of Arches National Park.

This enormous expansion could upset the delicate balance on the landscape between protected public lands, tourism and outdoor recreation, and energy development. Such a huge expansion of oil and gas drilling would threaten the national parks and their visitors, degrade local air quality and potentially change the Moab landscape forever.

The industry and administration will hide behind the terms of the master-leasing plan’s allowance for development in this region. However, such a sale would completely upend the goodwill and spirit of collaboration that brought people to the table. Far from a measured approach with many values in mind, leasing of these lands in one fell swoop could fundamentally alter that landscape forever. Not only would it lock those lands up from other uses for at least a decade, but it would threaten to industrialize some of the most iconic red rock country anywhere in the world.

Make no mistake, if this lease sale moves forward, it will negate what was a collaborative process meant to protect our national parks, recreational sites, areas of tribal significance, and the Red Rock landscapes for which Utah is famous. The administration should deny this industry wish list and focus instead on fulfilling the balanced vision so carefully crafted by many groups while protecting the treasured parks and landscapes of our Utah home.

Cordell Roy

Cordell Roy was superintendent at several national parks and served as the National Park Service’s state coordinator for Utah from 2003 to 2011. Retired, he lives in South Jordan.