New Administration Halts Oil and Gas Exploration Near Utah National Parks
In the last days of his administration, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) under President Bush moved forward on a controversial plan to allow oil and gas exploration on land adjacent to a number of Utah’s most popular and well-known natural areas.
Environmentalists, the National Park Service, and the travel industry were alarmed, while much of Utah’s top-tier state government officials, the BLM and mining interests were generally supportive.
But President Obama’s new Interior Secretary, former Senator Ken Salazar (D-CO), has ordered the BLM to not accept bids on 77 parcels of land near Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Parks, Dinosaur National Monument, and Nine Mile Canyon.
When the controversy first erupted in November of 2008, it seemed almost inter-governmental, with Park Service officials crying foul along with an array of conservationist groups.
Actor-turned-environmental-activist Robert Redford accused the BLM and Bush of ramming through the sale of leases, citing “rapacious greed and backdoor dealings.”
At the time, the BLM state director, Selma Sierra, a Bush appointee, was quoted as saying, “I’m puzzled the Park Service has been as upset as they are.” She maintained that all relevant groups and agencies had been properly consulted.
But it probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise considering the popularity of the parks involved in the controversy.
Not only is Arches National Park among the most popular National Parks in the West, it’s the state’s most recognizable natural area, with a red-orange arch adorning Utah license plates.
In the year to October 2008, Arches National Park attracted a whopping 885,621 visitors, an increase of 8.4 percent over the previous year.
In pure economic terms, the halting of the leases may actually turn out to be a boon for Utah. Although Salazar’s Interior Department will have to hand back about $6 million for canceling the leases, it’s estimated that the average visitor spends just over $100 per day in Utah—meaning that Arches National Park alone is adding millions of dollars year after year to the state’s economy.
Among the other pulled leases were those near Canyonlands National Park, a rugged area of deep canyons and high mesas.
It’s a visually arresting area with deep, Grand Canyon-like gorges gouged out by the Colorado River. There are also a few more of the sandstone arches that so define the natural landscape of Utah.
In the year to October 2008, Canyonlands attracted 417,609 visitors, an increase of more than 6 previous over the previous year.
The fossil-rich Dinosaur National Monument, a veritable paleontologist’s dream for almost a century, is no stranger to conflicts over the best uses of Western lands. It was here in the 1950s that the Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society, two of the oldest conservation groups, successfully blocked a proposal that would have turned much of the area into a reservoir and hydroelectric dam.
So while the land-use disputes continue, Utah’s National Parks and Monuments will not see new oil and gas rigs. For now, anyway.
By Matthew Calcara for PeterGreenberg.com. All photos courtesy National Park Service Photos.
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