Phil Brueck: Leasing plans threaten Utah’s national parks

(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) Canyonlands National Park as seen from Orange Cliffs Overlook Wednesday August 24, 2016.

As we continue to navigate the fallout from the pandemic and work to establish a “new normal,” many of us Utahns are still focused on balancing the demands of our personal and professional lives, providing for our families and thinking about loved ones we haven’t seen in many months.

Yet hidden within all this turmoil, it is business as usual for energy executives as they still push for more and more leasing of public lands for oil and gas drilling. In recent years we have seen an unprecedented “giveaway” to oil and gas corporations and these long-term leases show no signs of stopping even during the devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic. This ongoing effort hits especially close to home here in Utah, where public land lease sales on the doorstep of our national parks are still scheduled to move forward.

Thanks to our national parks, Utah is a thriving destination hub for tourists from all over the world who are drawn to our stunning scenery, dark night skies, and fantastic outdoor recreational opportunities. I spent over three decades with the National Park Service (NPS), helping to protect irreplaceable resources across the country so that our children and grandchildren could enjoy the same experiences that we currently enjoy.

During my time as deputy superintendent for Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, I saw again and again how much Utahans and others value their national parks. In fact, Utah’s national parks contributed over $1 billion to Utah’s economy in 2018. The stunning parks of southeast Utah welcomed more than 2.4 million visitors in 2018 who spent $246 million in nearby communities, supported 3,275 local jobs and produced $317 million in cumulative benefit to the local economy.

The public now needs to be aware that more than 114,000 acres in Utah will be up for grabs during the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) upcoming oil and gas lease sale in September. The majority of those leases are located in southern Utah, some within a half-mile of Canyonlands National Park, four miles from Arches National Park, three miles from Capitol Reef National Park and less than a mile from the original boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument

Leasing public land for oil and gas drilling near our national parks is never OK, as the impact can be devastating to the underlying features these parks have been established to protect, according to the 1916 Organic Act establishing the National Park Service — to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Impacts of great concern are those which impair the scenic views, create additional traffic in “quiet areas,” provide lighting which mars the invaluable night skies of the parks or threaten other resources through toxic spills or habitat disruption.

Proposed sales of these public land leases include the requirement for a public comment period which provides everyone an opportunity to express their opinions. These comment periods have always been valuable in drawing attention to the potential risks to local communities and surrounding lands. With public land lease sales continuing through the COVID-19 pandemic, the suggestion that groups and individual members of the public will be able to meaningfully participate in this public process is absurd — the focus of Americans is understandably on the health and safety of our families and friends!

If the Department of the Interior and Secretary David Bernhardt truly respect the public’s right to have a say in how public land is used, then BLM should be instructed to halt oil and gas lease sales until a time when the American public is able to truly assess the impacts and fully participate in the process.

Phil Brueck

Phil Brueck grew up in Utah and spent over 30 years with the National Park Service. He served as the deputy regional director for the Northeast Region of the National Park Service, superintendent of several national parks, and ended his career as deputy superintendent for the Southeast Utah Group. He currently lives in Utah and is a member of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks.