The great giveaway

by Emily Steinmetz

The worn walls of the ruins in Cedar Mesa change colors as the sun moves across the sky, glowing orange-red in the late afternoon to match the cliffs above and below them. The southeastern Utah site, home to ancestral Puebloans on and off from about 1 to 1300 A.D., remains fairly unspoiled, thanks to special federal protection. But now the Bureau of Land Management plans to open up the area for more recreational use. Agency officials say this will better protect the ruins, but archaeologists fear it could destroy them.

Cedar Mesa is just one of the places that would lose protection under six proposed resource management plans recently released by Utah’s BLM. The documents cement a 20-year management strategy for wilderness, cultural resource preservation, energy development, hiking, grazing and motorized recreation across about 11 million acres of public land, including nearly all of the state’s red-rock country.

In their current forms, the plans open about 80 percent of this land to energy development. Nearly half a million acres of unique natural and cultural sites, like Cedar Mesa, will lose their status as areas of critical environmental concern. That means more visitors and fewer protective measures. Off-road vehicles will be able to crisscross the delicate desert landscape on more than 17,000 miles of designated routes. The vast majority of roadless areas with wilderness value will be opened to both motorized recreation and oil and gas drilling.

“It’s the Bush administration’s last stand to make sure Utah’s public lands are open for development,” says Liz Thomas, attorney at the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. To make matters worse, it’s nearly impossible for the public to participate in the process because the BLM is rushing the changes through.

“We’ve been buried,” Thomas says. “The drafts came out bam, bam, bam, right at Christmas. … And then bam! This summer, we have six (proposed) plans out.”

Even if the next administration changes the management priorities for public lands, it will be difficult to change these plans because amending them is an onerous process.

It took years for the six plans to reach draft form — as long as seven in some cases. Then, over a seven-week period, the BLM released each 1,000-plus-page document on the heels of another, giving those who wanted to read and comment just a week or two to do so before the next one was made public. “It’s a shame that the whole thing couldn’t have been handled with … more input from the community,” says Dale Parriott, executive director of Ride with Respect, a Moab-based organization that promotes responsible off-road recreation.

Why the hurry? “We really need to get these wrapped up because we’re running out of money,” explains Don Ogaard, lead planner for the Utah BLM. The fiscal year ended on Sept. 30, and the Utah BLM cannot suck any more money out of the national coffers for the plans, he says. All of the records of decision will be signed by the end of October.

Those who’ve managed to read and comment on the resource management plans have pointed out the numerous impacts that the flurry of energy development would have on wildlife and natural and cultural resources. Dust and magnesium chloride, kicked up by the increased traffic that accompanies oil and gas drilling, could irreparably damage cultural artifacts like ancient rock art. Dust and emissions from drilling will likely degrade air quality — not just on public lands, but in the national parks they surround, and the additional lighting from the drill rigs will brighten night skies. The increased energy development will fragment the habitat of mule deer and bighorn sheep, and disrupt fragile desert soils. Despite all these concerns, the BLM — which is also working under intense time pressure — has made few substantive changes to its plans.

Wilderness and cultural resource advocates applaud the agency for moving from an open system, which allowed off-roaders to ride anywhere, to restricting traffic to particular routes. But they worry that there are just too many routes, and that the vehicles will further disrupt and fragment vulnerable soils, artifacts and habitats.

According to Jerry Spangler, executive director of the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance, the BLM has surveyed no more than 5 or 6 percent of the land in question, meaning that the agency doesn’t even know what cultural resources exist on the land it oversees. As a result, the BLM could unwittingly allow off road vehicles to cut through and damage unidentified archaeological sites.

“You know, that’s a real concern,” Ogaard agrees. But he says the agency simply doesn’t have the resources to conduct comprehensive surveys. The lack of money makes the hasty wrap-up of the management plans a challenge for the BLM as well as the public. “This isn’t the way we wanted things to work out either,” he says.

© High Country News