Steve Baker, Deseret News
The Utah Bureau of Land Management is being praised for pulling nearly 100,000 acres off the table for consideration at an upcoming oil and gas lease sale involving areas of the San Rafael Swell.
In the story "Industry fires back over pulled oil and gas leases at San Rafael Swell" (Jan. 14, 2014), the Western Energy Alliance claimed that the Utah Rock Art Research Association received special favoritism from Bureau of Land Management Director Juan Palma and his staff. Kathleen Sgamma, a Western Energy Alliance vice president, claimed that Utah Rock Art Research Association did not comply with legal procedures and talked the director into deferring 57 parcels of oil and gas leases in the scenic San Rafael Swell in central Utah. We believe these allegations are unfounded.
Diane Orr and I represented the Utah Rock Art Research Association at that meeting, and I would like to correct Sgamma’s misinformation. We are a nonprofit organization dedicated to public education, research and the preservation of Utah’s rich Native American heritage, specifically rock art. We requested the meeting with the BLM solely to present information that the BLM did not have about the rock art sites in the San Rafael Swell. There is no deadline on new information.
It is our responsibility to share information with the BLM and also the BLM’s responsibility to gather as much information as possible before making these important decisions. Our meeting was never intended to be part of any protest, so the accusations by Sgamma are unfounded.
While it would be nice to think that two of us could, in an hour or so, singlehandedly convince the BLM to remove 57 areas from oil and gas leasing, thinking this would be delusional. Multiple groups, including the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the National Resource Defense Council, the Grand Canyon Trust and the Sierra Club filed protests.
Additionally, the BLM held public meetings with local residents ("BLM pulls controversial San Rafael Swell parcels," Nov. 16, 2013), most of whom opposed any oil and gas leases. So the decisions to not lease these lands had a lot of support from many other people. This negates Sgamma’s comment that the BLM “unlawfully caved in to a special interest group.”
Why is it that the BLM did not know about the cultural resources that we told them about? It is because, for as long as I can remember, the BLM (until recently) employed only one archaeologist in the Price Field Office, which is where these leases exist. A handful of archaeologists cannot possibly discover and document every archeological site in the roughly 32,600,000 acres of BLM land in Utah.
I have spent a significant portion of my life searching for archaeological sites and I have greater knowledge about some areas of the state than the BLM does, and so do people who live in towns around the Swell. I am pleased to share my knowledge with the BLM. In doing so I hope to prevent another Nine Mile Canyon situation — where energy development trucks, massive drilling rigs and large vehicles permanently damaged prehistoric petroglyphs by coating them with dust and diesel exhaust. This should not be repeated in the San Rafael Swell.
The San Rafael Swell contains unique examples of prehistoric rock art found nowhere else. These are irreplaceable, world-class sites and they have provided very important information. These images must be preserved for future generations to study. The Swell contains seven wilderness study areas, which is evidence of the undisturbed nature of the area. Oil and gas extraction not only has the potential to damage cultural sites but also disrupt recreational activities.
Steven Manning is director of the Utah Archaeological Research Institute and a preservation committee member of the Utah Rock Art Research Association.