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Striking a balance: Moab's future hinges on energy and recreation

Published: Tuesday, April 15 2014 10:35 a.m. MDT

This view in the Canyonlands National Park helps to drive a multimillion dollar recreation economy. Some environmental groups says the area is threaten by oil development.

Amy Joi O'Donoghue, Deseret News

Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-day series on the future of the greater Moab area and the tension between the growth of the energy industry and outdoor recreation. Read the first part here.

MOAB — The vision for how land use plays out in southeast Utah amid Moab's red rock country is as fluid as the Colorado River that has carved out some of the most spectacular scenery on earth.

At one bend, the land can be enveloped in the protective arms of a new monument designation, or in the next eddy it could be zoned for both resource extraction and wilderness classifications under congressional legislation.

Is there a solution to ease the tension and satisfy both camps?

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, is proposing legislation called the "Grand Bargain" which call on the parties at the table to carve out sections of land for wilderness designations and set up zones where resource extraction can proceed.

Grand County has offered up three alternatives in its land use proposals, one of which will ultimately be approved and rolled into Bishop's bill.

The options run the gamut: one is extremely restrictive for industry, one is middle of the road and the other option is more protectionist of land resources. The county has scheduled a public hearing April 23 to hear public comments on those options.

Similarly, the Moab field office of the Bureau of Land Management has been crafting a master leasing plan that encompasses nearly a million acres in San Juan and Grand counties.

This landscape-style approach to land use planning is a reform instituted in 2010 by then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on the heels of national attention stoked by possible oil and gas development not far from Arches National Park.

A master leasing plan does planning up front, incorporating environmental reviews at the outset rather than after a land use has been initially proposed.

Such a strategy — while more time-consuming and costly — reduces industry uncertainty and angst and is designed to mollify litigation-prone environmental groups by screening potentially sensitive and controversial areas out of consideration for development.

A draft of the plan, which has dragged on for years and has proven costly, is scheduled to be released this fall.

Building support

Ashley Korenblat, an East Coast transplant, public lands consultant and Moab mountain bike outfitter, believes the ground-level, landscape view approach can work.

"I think it is possible to come up with real specific zoning so industry knows where the appropriate places are to drill and we can have a recreation economy," she said.

Korenblat said BLM's current approach to planning has not caught up with the evolution and expansion of the recreation industry into the mainstream.

"The system tends to favor resource extraction, it was set up that way and it made sense for the time. But at some point during the 21st century we have found other ways to make a living off the land through recreation. And land in its natural state is also an economic driver. The regulations have not kept pace with a 21st century economy."

Korenblat was in Washington, D.C., meeting with Bishop last week on his land bills. She thinks it is another tool to temper both sides of the fight.

She and others also believe that if the effort is not succesful, a monument designation for the area is likely.

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