Red Alert: Drilling Threatens Iconic Moab Destinations (Again)

Green River Overlook in Utah. Photo by Don White

By Grant Perdue

It was the most natural place I’d ever seen. Sandstone walls of saturated varnish towered over each side of the canyon as the silky Green River parted the seas of red rock. The sun played hide-and-seek behind a veil of puffy clouds as the air pressure dropped through Bowknot Bend. The waters became choppy as they rocked our floating vessels; we laughed. Probably harder than we had the entire trip – after all, a multi-day, 50-mile pack-rafting trip was bound to encounter a bit of risque weather. “Just beyond the bend,” we thought, the weather must subside.

However, the storm raged on, and it just became more turbulent. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) recently nominated over 80,000 acres of public land near Moab to be put on the leasing docket for Oil and Gas companies. That’s 125 square miles of your land that could be closed, extracted from, and permanently damaged. On June 9, the BLM released an environmental impact report for the proposed land parcels, and let’s just say… we’re not psyched.

Among parcels involved in the to-be transaction are iconic destinations ranging from the Green River to just north of Indian Creek. A major cluster of such land sits right on top of the Green River’s “Bowknot Bend,” butting right up to the water. Here, a horseshoe-like bend slices through the river’s canyon walls in a breathtaking display of geomorphology. Larkin Brodie, a CU-Boulder senior and resident of Boulder, Utah, recently found herself floating through this mystic land. “To imagine something like drilling there is such a big ‘f*** you’ to the landscape that has been there so much longer than us,” she said. “It’s so important ecologically.”

Labyrinth Canyon is also a major hotspot for guided rafting and canoe tours, an industry that would likely take a major hit from oil and gas extraction on site. “It’s polluting and ugly, and half of the folks come here for the views and the scenery,” said Blaine Reniger of Moab’s Navtec Rafting. “I’m totally 100-percent against it.”

In fact, according to a recent Economic Value of Public Lands Survey in Grand County, Utah, ⅔ of local residents indicate that public lands are “extremely valuable” to their business. Moreover, after peaking around 1981, oil and gas-related jobs account for only 2-percent of total employment in the region; however, per-capita income rose by 30-percent from 2000 to 2013, as did employment in professional and technical services.

Great rafting in the Green River

Given these figures, one might be flustered as to why oil and gas companies are allowed to take siege of these public lands. However, one might not be surprised. Relaxed policies regarding oil and gas leasing are just another result of the Trump Administration’s thinning of environmental regulations; namely, the rollback of the Master Leasing Plan, an Obama-era policy that took a more critical look at which parcels of land could be leased. Nowadays, it is painfully easy for oil and gas companies to nominate and lease whichever parcels of land they please.

The Process of Leasing Public Land:
For starters, BLM land is public land––however, it sits under a multiple-use mandate, and those uses can include everything from recreation, to grazing, to extraction. “The underlying mission of the BLM is sustaining the future yield of all of these multiple uses,” said ICF Environmental Planner Meghan Henegan. Here’s how it all goes down:

1. An Open Auction
An open auction is held to nominate public land for leasing. In this case, an auction was held specifically for oil and gas related leases.

Mountain biking Slick Rock

2. NEPA Environmental Report
Then, the National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) performs an environmental assessment on nominated land parcels. For Bowknot, the report is not good, and describes massive risks associated with drilling near the water, along with heightened levels of hazardous emissions. However, while the BLM must go through this intensive, costly report, they are not required to land on (pun intended) parcels that have the least environmental impact; they simply have to do the report.

3. Public Commentary
That’s where we come in. The public has 30 days to share their opinions regarding nominated land parcels. “The BLM looks at every comment received,” said Henegan. In fact, public commentary has majorly impacted leasing events in the past, like in the case of legendary mountain bike destination Slickrock, which was taken off of the leasing gauntlet after an outpouring of public displeasure. So, let’s Slickrock the shit out of this thing and comment away!

4. The Gauntlet
The final auction is held, and often results in public land being leased away for an extremely low price (say, $2 an acre) and an extremely high risk (massive emissions, overcrowding, and job losses in the tourism sector).

Not surprisingly, the underground of Moab, Utah, contains those sweet, sweet, nectarine-like fossil fuels that big oil and gas companies feed off of. For this reason, the area has repeatedly been forced to fend off the oilistic invaders from extorting its bedrock. This case is no different: big oil wants oil, and outdoor recreationists want to protect the spaces that inspire them. In this case, the two butt head-to-head.

“Of course, you have to make room for oil and gas exploration, but with Moab’s access to 5 National Parks where people come to hike, bike, and enjoy what we have to offer, I don’t think this is the place to do that,” said Steve Kennedy, an owner of Gearheads Climbing Shop in Moab.

Let’s be honest: the prospect of clipping cams on Dead Crow with huge, polluting drilling rigs in the distant background feels even worse than that heinous rope drag. More importantly, though, is the fact that Moab operates almost exclusively on a tourism economy, and oil development only muddies the waters in the already-booming tourism industry. (Plus, it’s a hell of a lot more sustainable)…

For many, the towering walls of Indian Creek, just south of Moab, inspire a frequent pilgrimage. In extreme cases, they inspire dirtbags to live out of their cars and become full-blown desert rats. (High-five). Personally, I’d much rather spend time in the desert alongside sun-kissed, guitar-playing, tangly-haired rock warriors than rustic drilling rigs that literally make the ground cry.

Avoiding the Gauntlet:
As stoke-filled recreationists, we truly do have a voice when it comes to decision-making on our public lands. We participate in an 8 billion dollar industry… and there are a lot of us. We recreate in these spaces because they inspire us, they are bigger than us, and they support our call to adventure. So, if you are displeased by the prospect of oil and drilling entering your sacred space, say it… and say it loud. Comment in the public forum and amplify your voice by calling Utah’s 3rd Congressional District Representative John Curtis at 202-225-7751.

Read more from our author Grant Perdue @officialgrantperdue.

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