New oil and gas leases throw another wrench in Utah’s big wilderness deal


The San Rafael Swell, the Book Cliffs, Desolation Canyon and the areas around Canyonlands National Park are some of Utah’s most iconic places; yet they lack federal protections. They’ve been land management battlegrounds for decades, pitting wilderness advocates and muscle-powered recreationalists against resource extraction and motor–powered recreationalists.

But as reporter Greg Hanscom described recently in HCN, there’s hope of easing that stalemate as Congressman Rob Bishop, a conservative who's known as being anti-federal lands, is working to broker a big federal land management deal, and find some closure on decades of acrimony over land use.

In spite of the optimism that both Bishop and environmental groups expressed toward the nascent process, there are two new wrinkles in protecting wilderness values in the San Rafael Swell and the Book Cliffs. The Bureau of Land Management and Utah’s school land trust are offering up nearly 236,000 acres of their respective lands for potential oil and gas leasing, making the push for Congressional action to protect red rock country even more urgent.

View into Little Grand Canyon of the San Rafael River.

The area that was once a little-visited blur of rock along I-70 near Green River is now a destination for a whole host of recreationalists, who spill over from Moab and Dominguez-Escalante National Monument to explore the Swell’s inner valleys and canyons. Thanks in part to this increased interest, plus its isolation, fragile desert ecosystem, and its mind-bending rock formations, the Swell has been the subject of about a dozen (failed) proposals for federal protections in the last 50 years.

But Bush-era resource management plans, a kind of land-use zoning done by the BLM, made parts of the Swell available to leasing. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance thinks the plans should have kept wilderness-quality areas off-limits to oil and gas, which would have prevented the current situation.

The BLM attributes the recent decision to lease to the sheer number of nominations they’ve received from energy companies who want to explore in the area. The agency notes that it deferred from leasing lands in occupied sage grouse habitat and in wilderness study areas. "We had a lot of acres nominated, but leasing reform is requiring us to take a thorough look at these nominated lands," spokeswoman Megan Crandall told the Salt Lake Tribune, explaining their decision to put up 82 parcels covering 144,000 acres in Emery (the Swell’s location), Uintah and Carbon counties.

Yet the parcels going up for lease on Nov. 19 still overlay lands in the Swell that the feds have identified as having “wilderness characteristics” – basically big places with minor impacts from people, and sometimes natural features like unique geology or rare species. A parcel in the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry, an incredible Jurassic fossil trove and a National Natural Landmark, was also erroneously included on the auction list, and the BLM conceded to the mistake.

For David Garbett, a staff attorney for the Alliance, the pending leases are déjà vu – a reminder of the 2008 lease sale that involved parcels near Arches National Park and in the San Rafael Swell, and led to activist Tim DeChristopher’s jailing for falsely bidding on leases. (The Alliance subsequently got those leases overturned in court.)

The Alliance is planning to formally protest the upcoming San Rafael Swell leases, but Garbett hopes to eventually end the piecemeal fighting. “This lease sale shows that there is a need for congressional direction protecting the San Rafael Swell,” he says.

The organization’s ultimate goal is to see Congress pass America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act, a massive, long sought-after wilderness bill currently sitting with the House Natural Resources Committee. Some of the areas in the pending leases overlap with lands slated for protection in the wilderness act. The Alliance is also participating in Bishop’s process, which focuses on eastern Utah, in the hopes that it will help them meet their larger wilderness goals.

A view of the San Rafael Swell, from Interstate 70 in Utah.
In addition to the Swell auction, there’s another lease deal afoot on crucial conservation land, and it also happens to include a pile of bargaining chips in Bishop’s grand land deal. Utah’s School and Institutional Lands Administration (SITLA) is offering up 96,000 acres of its land in Utah’s Book Cliffs to the oil and gas exploration company Anadarko Petroleum. The Book Cliffs, a remote plateau stretching from near Grand Junction, Colo. to Price, Utah, includes prized wildlife habitat, and roadless areas. Assuming the land's conservation value stays intact, SITLA could trade Book Cliffs land for federal parcels that are more suitable for oil and gas development as part of Bishop's deal.

The late August decision to offer Anadarko the Book Cliffs dismayed and angered sportsmen’s groups like Trout Unlimited, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, who see the lands as a top conservation priority in the state.

It also caught the attention of Bishop and Gov. Gary Herbert, putting the politicians at odds with SITLA. Herbert, who usually encourages energy development, recently urged SITLA to reconsider their decision. Leasing the most intact areas of the Book Cliffs could complicate their role in Bishop’s bargain, and Brian Maffly wrote in the Salt Lake Tribune that Herbert is “concerned that (SITLA’s) board was unaware of the broader ramifications of leasing this portion of its Book Cliffs holdings.”

Could this public opposition to his state’s school land trust be a sign that Herbert is finally willing to throw at least some weight behind recreation and conservation in Utah? Earlier this summer, the Outdoor Industry Association, which has had a fraught relationship with Utah’s governors, praised Herbert’s choice for the country’s first-ever recreation czar to lead his newly formed Office of Outdoor Recreation.

In response, Peter Metcalf, the president of Salt Lake-based gear company Black Diamond, and a vocal conservation advocate in the outdoor industry, told the Denver Post: "The governor has long been a wonderful advocate on behalf of energy and the idea that the state needs to speed up the process allowing energy development in specific places. His recreation vision is a good, balanced mission that we support but a vision without policy is nothing but a vision…We would love to see him get out front and advocate for outdoor places and policies just as he does for those extractive industries."

The governor’s opposition to energy development in the most intact parts of the Book Cliffs seems like a start to that, but even with new priorities, at least on paper, for recreation and land conservation, it remains to be seen if those interests will break through the state’s long-standing resistance to federal land protection.

Sarah Jane Keller is an editorial fellow at High Country News. Photo of San Rafael Swell from I-70 by Dennis Adams, National Scenic Byways Online, via Wikimedia Commons. Little Grand Canyon photo by Greg Willis via Wikimedia Commons.

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