Bigger might be better for Utah's parks

  • Lockhart Basin east of Canyonlands National Park

    Norm Shrewsbury
 

Lockhart Basin isn't part of southern Utah's Canyonlands National Park, but activists and park managers are saying it should be.

Just outside the park's eastern boundaries, the basin will soon be home to a drilling rig from Legacy Energy Corp., which has a permit from the Bureau of Land Management to explore for oil.

Opponents of the drilling say Lockhart Basin should be protected, that it is a seamless continuation of the spectacular canyons the park was created to preserve.

"Those boundaries never should have been there in the first place," says Heidi MacIntosh, a staffer with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. She says Lockhart Basin was bumped outside the park's original boundaries to placate the extractive-resources industry, and that SUWA will appeal the BLM's Aug. 28 decision to permit drilling there.

Lockhart Basin is part of a 50,000 square-mile roadless area, and critics fear that roads built by the oil company will disturb desert bighorn sheep and add to the Canyonlands area's growing traffic problems.

Not so, according to an environmental assessment completed earlier this summer. Moab area manager Kent Walter says the agency concluded that the project would not harm resources in Lockhart Basin. Legacy Energy Corp. will be held to environmental mitigations, he says, such as refraining from drilling during the bighorn sheep's lambing and mating seasons, installing gates on new road entrances and painting wells in camouflage colors.

For park managers who have supported expanding boundaries for several years, the oil rigs raise familiar questions. "We're asking if Canyonlands' boundaries make sense for the long haul," says park spokesman Paul Henderson.

"So far," he says, "our answer is no."

When the park was created in the mid-1960s, it drew an estimated 20,000 visitors. Now some 500,000 people come each year to Canyonlands to hike, bike and jeep. Henderson says, "As visitorship goes up and up, it's getting harder to manage with resources limited by artificial boundaries."

The park's managers would like to see what they call a park "completion" that would increase Canyonlands from 337,000 acres to 830,000 acres. Walt Dabney, superintendent for Canyonlands and Arches national parks, as well as Natural Bridges National Monument, is a leading advocate of this plan. He believes the expansion will be critical in accommodating the rising numbers of visitors expected in the next several decades.

For Dabney, oil rigs in Lockhart Basin are a relatively short-term concern, with a life span of five to 40 years at the most. It is looking at the next century and beyond, he says, that worries him: Pressures on the park, including litter, human waste and traffic, will be "pretty horrendous.

"Fixing these boundaries is critical to southeast Utah's future," continues Dabney. "I'd invite anyone to go stand up on the rim of that canyon, look around, and say what makes sense for that park."

Redrawing a park's boundaries must be approved by Congress, however. And Utah's political climate, still rancorous from the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument designation, is hardly ripe for a national park expansion.

"What we can take from all this," says Dabney, "is that we need to start creating parks that follow natural, topographic boundaries, not political ones."

A bill currently before Congress may influence Canyonlands' future. Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, is sponsoring a bill to expand nearby Arches National Park by some 3,000 acres. The House of Representatives will hear the measure on Sept. 16.

* Emily Miller, HCN intern

You can ...

* Call Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance at 801/486-3161, or,

* Call the Moab District Bureau of Land Management in Monticello at 801/587-2141.

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