What's underneath the Staircase?

  • Conoco drill rig at Reese Canyon near the new monument

    Photo courtesy SUWA

With a pen stroke last year, President Clinton put to rest a decades-old conflict between extraction and conservation. He established the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and the threat of coal and oil development on southern Utah's remote Kaiparowits Plateau blew away.

So most people thought.

But on June 6, Conoco Inc., the largest subsidiary of DuPont Corp., began drilling for oil on state school-trust lands within the monument. A second drilling rig stands at the head of Reese Canyon, in the monument's southern end, where the company plans to drill 14,000 feet into the earth's crust.

The Bureau of Land Management, which administers the monument, says it can do nothing to stop Conoco because it has no jurisdiction. The school-trust lands are "inholdings' managed by Utah's School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration. Although Utah's schools boast of large revenue returns from such drilling, last year's royalties generated less than one half of 1 percent of Utah's total education budget, according to the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

Conoco also holds leases on BLM land within the monument's borders. But the leases were acquired before the monument's creation, and the BLM says it can't deny drilling there because the leases are "valid existing rights," says BLM director Bill Lamb.

The agency could have delayed drilling by doing an environmental impact statement. Instead, it did a quicker environmental analysis in May 1997 and found that drilling "would not result in significant impacts on the human environment."

Conoco says it is waiting for results from its school-trust wells before deciding whether to drill on federal lands, according to company spokesman Bob Irelan.

Environmentalists are dismayed. "The BLM should put the leases on suspension to appropriately complete an EIS," says Pam Eaton of the Wilderness Society. SUWA agrees. "The BLM is proving itself unable to manage the monument," says spokesman Scott Groene, "and nobody seems willing to find a solution."

Environmental and citizens groups have rallied to protest the incursions, staging everything from vigils in Washington, D.C., to pickets in Salt Lake City. After the BLM, environmental groups and Conoco met in February and failed to reach a compromise, Conoco announced it would begin drilling on a two-acre parcel of school-trust land.

BLM officials say privately they hope Conoco's wells on school-trust land will come up dry, forcing Conoco to abandon the area. Groene says unless the BLM makes a decisive move, "Conoco is going to keep on drilling."

Ruland Gill Jr., volunteer head of the state school-lands board and an executive with Questar (natural gas) Corp., said the clash is part of a larger effort to force the feds to deal with approximately 200,000 acres of school-trust land scattered throughout the monument. The state, Gill said in a speech in Park City in June, hopes to exert pressure on the federal government to discuss land trades.

Gill said the school lands outfit has been transformed over the past few years. Once accused by Utah's educators of being a good-old-boy outfit that didn't even have a balance sheet, the board now has a strategy for its lands and has accumulated a war chest to do legal battle with, or negotiate with, the federal government.

In 1993, the Congress passed Public Law 103-93, to trade or buy out another 200,000 acres of state inholdings in Arches, capitol Reef and other national parks and monuments in Utah. That process has led to lawsuits over the value of about 25 percent of the tracts, which is delaying completion of the tracks and buy-outs.

* Jamie Murray, HCN intern

You can ...

* Contact the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance at 801/486-3161 or see its Web page at http://www.suwa.org, or,

* Contact Greg Thayne, BLM Utah State office, 324 S. State, Suite 301, Salt Lake City, UT 84111 (801/539-4071).

* Contact Dave Hebertson, School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, 801/538-5102, or see its Web site at wwwtl.state.ut.us.