Jason Keith and Louis Geltman: Utah’s recreational lands deserve better protections

Interior Department must reform oil and gas program before moving forward with Utah sale.

Nate Carlisle | The Salt Lake Tribune A sign marks the end of the Curtis Bench Trail in Goblin Valley State Park. The trail concludes with a view of Goblins on the valley below and the Henry Mountains in the distance.

Early this year, the Bureau of Land Management is scheduled to hold an oil and gas lease sale in Utah despite the Interior Department’s recent – but still unfulfilled – commitment to reforming the federal government’s outdated leasing program.

BLM is currently considering offering thousands of acres of Utah’s public lands up to the oil and gas industry, many of which have important recreation values. This is very troubling to us in part because, as a recent report by the Interior Department warned, when sensitive public lands are leased, they “cannot be managed for other purposes, such as conservation or recreation.” For this reason we recently submitted a letter to the BLM Utah State Office, asking BLM to defer the upcoming lease sale until programmatic reforms are made to the leasing program.

We are encouraged, however, by BLM’s decision to develop and evaluate a “Recreational Resources Preservation Alternative.” Under this alternative, BLM would defer from leasing more than 6,000 acres of Utah’s public lands, including a parcel on the doorstep of Goblin Valley State Park, because of their importance to outdoor recreation. These lands are a crucial part of Utah’s $12.3 billion outdoor recreation economy.

It’s hard to believe but, to our knowledge, BLM has never developed such a “recreation preservation” alternative during the leasing process. As a result, lease sales have been proposed in many sensitive and valuable landscapes that never should have been made available for leasing in the first place.

For instance, in 2020, more than 87,000 acres of public lands were proposed for leasing just outside Canyonlands and Arches National Parks. While the leases were ultimately deferred after the sale was widely opposed by local officials, the outdoor recreation community and dozens of members of Congress, it underscored the need for a new approach to managing oil and gas activity, especially in popular recreation areas.

To be clear, we feel strongly that BLM should not be conducting leasing right now unless and until it makes fundamental reforms to its leasing program, including ensuring that any new leasing is compatible with climate goals. However, we conceptually support the “recreation preservation” alternative because it would curb the detrimental impacts of oil and gas development on important recreation areas.

This alternative can serve as a model that BLM should consider standardizing as part of its programmatic reform effort. Having a standardized approach of discouraging oil and gas activity in popular recreation areas is one important way BLM could modernize its leasing policies to better adhere to its multiple use mandate and protect key landscapes that host valuable uses other than oil and gas development.

In its recently released report, DOI notes that BLM’s outdated leasing program has harmed and continues to harm taxpayers, public lands and waters, cultural resources and sacred sites, wildlife and more. It’s time for DOI to act and move forward with bold and far-reaching reforms to BLM’s leasing program. We can’t afford to sacrifice any more of our world-class outdoor recreation resources to oil and gas development.

Jason Keith

Jason Keith is managing director for Public Land Solutions.

Louis Geltman

Louis Geltman is policy director for the Outdoor Alliance.