Utah boasts an abundance of world class outdoor recreation opportunities. As many Utahns know, these incredible natural assets attract both visitors and outdoor-industry companies to Utah — creating a powerful economic engine for the state. In fact, according to the Outdoor Industry Association, the outdoor industry directly employs 122,400 people in Utah. The $3.6 billion in wages these workers earn generate $856 million in state and local taxes, which go to support Utah schools, roads and other vital services.
A recent plan put forth by the Department of the Interior regarding potential leases for oil shale and tar sands development on Bureau of Land Management lands goes a long way to protect Utah's outdoor recreation economy. In short, the plan provides oil shale and tar sands speculators with the land they need to research and prove their technologies, without simply writing a blank check for large-scale commercial leases. If companies can prove the economic feasibility of their technologies, as well as their ability to conserve critical water, wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation values, then companies will have a pathway to larger scale leases.
Unlike previous proposals, this approach outlines a measured, research-first process that will safeguard western rivers like the Colorado and the many outfitting businesses that depend on healthy public lands. Importantly, the plan provides protections for prime recreation areas that sustain robust local economies and promise long-term economic benefits from activities such as mountain biking, rock climbing, hiking, canyoneering and boating.
The plan still allows for oil shale speculation and tar sands development on more than 800,000 acres of public lands in the western U.S., the largest portion of which is located in Utah (360,000 acres). So, we are still concerned there will be impacts to areas like the San Rafael Swell, Desolation Canyon, the Dirty Devil River and White Canyon, all of which are prime locations for climbers, boaters, mountain bikers, canyoneers and outfitters.
Although there are many, many questions about the economic and environmental sustainability of oil shale development, we do have a great deal of evidence to suggest a measured and cautious approach to oil shale development is the right way to go. This is especially the case considering that experimental oil shale and tar sands development require huge amounts of water and energy and the mining operations create a rather large footprint.
Because these impacts could have a long-term detrimental effect on Utah's landscape, it makes no sense to risk real jobs we have right now in outdoor recreation and tourism for costly oil shale speculation.
Despite our continued concerns about oil shale and tar sands development, this plan represents a big improvement over past proposals. The research it requires, regarding economic feasibility and environmental responsibility, provides protection for resources that currently support stable, long-term economies and healthy communities. These are wise and common sense safeguards to our outdoor recreation economy.
Jason Keith is the senior policy adviser for the Access Fund, a national advocacy group for rock climbers and mountaineers. Keith also serves as policy chief for the Outdoor Alliance, which represents the interests of the millions of Americans who hike, paddle, climb, mountain bike, ski and snowshoe on our nation's public lands, waters and snowscapes.