Moab's dilemma: Can recreation coexist with energy?

Published: Saturday, April 12 2014 4:25 p.m. MDT

"Multi-use does not mean every use," said Marc Thomas with the Sierra Club, which proudly decries "dirty oil" and embraces an all or nothing approach when it comes to land.

"I don't think there is a place for industry here. This is no place for oil and this is no place for potash."

Thomas, from Chicago, retired at 55 and sought this place to live after a visit. At the sprawling expanse of Canyonlands National Park, as he points to purple-hued buttes catching a spray of sun, he becomes animated, and his words start to tumble one after another.

"I've talked to other people and they all tell the same story. This place crossed their radar and once they got here, they couldn't believe what they saw and what they experienced and it knocked them over," he said.

"It made them change horses in midstream, set a different course. I am just afraid the magical experience that brought us here will not be available to those who are coming after us."

The threat for Thomas and Living Rivers' John Weisheit are the extraction industries — companies they say have no place in a recreation economy.

"They don't belong here," Weisheit said bluntly. "It threatens this entire area."

But as rich as southeast Utah may be for recreation, it also boasts a bounty of natural resources that can be tapped for fertilizer and fuel.

"It was mining that put Moab on the map," Green said. "That is what defined Moab, the uranium, the minerals that are here."

The Bureau of Land Management's Moab master leasing plan, still in the crafting stage, encompasses 946,469 acres in Grand and San Juan counties — an area estimated to contain 145 billion cubic feet of natural gas and 32.5 million barrels of oil.

During the past 30 years, 66 wells have been drilled in the leasing area, with 45 that turned out to be dry holes. Although the oil and gas industry has been active in southeast Utah since 1925, it has only been in the past few years that horizontal drilling has enabled industry to hit significant, and sustainable, production numbers.

The wells

Fidelity Exploratiion & Production Co., operates 17 wells in what's called the Cane Creek unit and hopes to drill 12 to 14 more in 2014 at an investment of $170 million. It bought the leases in 2006 from another company and began operations less than a year later.

As state Route 313 winds southwest toward Dead Horse State Park and Canyonlands National Park, a careful visitor can spy the green pump jacks and collection of tank batteries off in the distance.

Semi trucks hauling water for oil production share the highway with tourists, bicyclists and campers.

This new growth in the Big Flat area has Roberts and other environmental groups bristling, but it engenders little reaction from some visitors.

Karen Ludwig from Pocatello, Idaho, noticed the trucks on the road and said she'd read about the increased oil activity online before she took her boys to Moab for a vacation at both Arches and Canyonlands national parks.

"I read that it spoiled the landscape and that there would be trucks all over," she said, adding that she was apprehensive about what she'd see. "I was pleasantly surprised. I did see a couple of the trucks."

Her son, Scott Lucas, 19, said the oil production equipment he noticed was "somewhat understated and blended in."

Betty Jones drove in from Pueblo County, Colo., with her husband to visit for the day at Canyonlands.

"I noticed some of the rigs, but I didn't see very many of them. I've seen a whole lot more where we're from."

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