Striking a balance: Moab's future hinges on energy and recreation
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.
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.
"When the current council was seated, we took a vote and said we were opposed to the monument," Grand County Council Chairman Lynn Jackson said. "We know we live in an iconic landscape, but a unilateral decision made by a small group of people is not the way we believe things should be done."
The "small" group of people Jackson refers to are groups like the Sierra Club whose big push is the designation of the Greater Canyonlands National Monument.
"The Sierra Club has guaranteed their followers there will be a monument," Jackson said. "What will happen if the (Bishop bill) fails is we will get a signature on a piece of paper, and bam, we'll have a brand new monument.
He added that it is an untenable position for the county, creating a divisive tug-of-war among residents who want their preference to prevail.
"It is sort of like we are being asked to negotiate with a gun against our head. It is not a good negotiating place to be in, but nonetheless it is where we are."
Jackson insists that it is possible for the area to preserve its recreational value despite any increase in oil and gas activity.
"I think we can achieve a balance so we can continue to have the benefits of a recreation economy combined with a modicum of mineral production," he said. "This area will never be the Uinta Basin. Geologically, it is just not possible."
But a transformation in horizontal drilling technology has unleashed a new potential for oil development in the Paradox Basin, a potential that makes environmentalists shudder.
"The threats to this region are real and it is an amazing landscape that should be protected," said Tim Wagner, a Salt Lake City resident who leads the Sierra Club's fight to get 1.9 million acres designated by President Obama as the Greater Canyonlands National Monument.
"This area will continue to get hammered by potential oil and gas development, tar sands, oil shale and potash mining," Wagner said.
The Big Flat Oil Field outside of Canyonlands National Park is home to the top producing oil well in the lower 48 states and its owner has plans to drill 12-14 more wells this year.
A pipeline that is largely above ground is being installed to capture the 456 million cubic feet of gas that is flared off in the production process, and the BLM is preparing to release an analysis on a collection system to feed into that main gathering line.
"The Fidelity pipeline, to a lot of us, represents the start of major infrastructure that will industrialize the Moab area. That is all the more reason why we need to start protecting large swaths of land down there, otherwise that region of the state stands to lose what it has gained over the years."
A drastic spike in potash prices has also fueled a frenzied interest in new mines in the area and one company gained approval from the BLM to drill some exploratory wells. Critics fear it is just a matter of time before there is another potash mine.
For some, it feels like southeast Utah is under siege because of the uptick in industrial activity.
"People don't come here to see the oil rigs, the water trucks. They don't look that up in a travel brochure," said Marc Thomas a Moab-resident and Sierra Club member.
Road to riches or ruin?
A monument designation would preclude any more oil development in the Big Flat area and essentially boot new extraction out the door, Wagner said.
Such protection would also derail any possibility of widening and paving Sego Canyon Road off I-70 into the Book Cliffs, opening up an "oil corridor" to the Uinta Basin.
Grand County wants to team up with Uintah County and explore the feasibility of such an option, which Jackson said could generate millions in the years to come because Grand County could charge a toll. The Bishop bill, he adds, would squarely put that road in the county's hands, splicing open a new, viable route for Uinta Basin crude to leave the state.
Wagner said putting in the road means putting in an ugly future for the area and will accelerate the mining of oil shale and tar sands in the region. The pipeline and the desire to tap the oil, he warns, ultimately comes at a great cost.
"Long after the last barrel of oil and natural gas are tapped, Grand County and San Juan County can still have a good economy because of the outdoor recreation. That is the goose that laid the golden egg. If we don’t protect that goose we are not going to get any more golden eggs out of there."
Jackson said the oil shale and tar sands will be mined regardless of the road.
"It's going to happen. It t is just going to go north into the Uinta Basin and over to the Wasatch Front. The bottom line is whether we build a road or not, this stuff is going to be mined."
Thomas and others aren't so resigned about their fight against any more oil development in the region.
"If we can't stop it here, we can't stop it anywhere."
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