Obama Administration Saves One National Park’s Night Sky — For Now

CREDIT: AP Photo/Margaret Matthews

pumpjackThe Bureau of Land Management announced late last Friday that it will not be auctioning off approximately 10,700 acres of public lands near Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado to oil and gas companies come November. In July, news outlets reported that the areas would be put up for sale last week, but that turned out to not be the case. The parcels were originally scheduled to go up for auction in February but were so controversial that BLM pulled them after public outcry.

While these areas have been pulled from the auction block for now, it doesn’t mean that they are permanently protected. In fact, they could be offered for leasing again at any point in the future. BLM stated only that it “decided to defer the parcels again in order to ‘complete further analysis and work with interested agencies.'”

Stakeholders including local county commissioners, the National Park Service, and former park rangers have expressed concerns about the impacts of this drilling including on tourism, air quality, and night skies. Part of the appeal of Mesa Verde National Park and the lands surrounding it is its undeveloped character. As the National Park Service writes on its website:

Since there are no large cities in the Four Corners region, there is very little artificial light to detract from the stars in the night sky. Most nights the skies are clear and full of stars. On a clear night, you can see the Milky Way.

This directly contrasts heavily drilled regions like western North Dakota, where the light pollution from flaring and other industrial processes is so bad that it can be seen from space:


The BLM has been faced with these kinds of controversial decisions before, including in December 2008 when the Bush administration leased over 100,000 acres near Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park in Utah. But in early 2009, one of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s first decisions was to cancel those leases, saying that they were “rushed” and that oil and gas drilling must be done “in a thoughtful and respectful way.”

County commissioners and other interested parties are asking BLM to wait to decide whether and where to lease near Mesa Verde National Park until the agency has completed a planning process for energy development in the region known as a “master leasing plan.” This process was put in place by the Obama administration in 2010 as part of a series of important oil and gas reforms aimed at ensuring leasing avoided high conflict areas such as near national parks. Whether the Obama administration rushes ahead with the Mesa Verde leases or instead chooses to step back, engage the local community, and develop a master leasing plan for the area first is an important test of the 2010 oil and gas reforms.

Mesa Verde National Park isn’t the only special place that is threatened by oil and gas drilling. A report from the National Parks Conservation Association earlier this spring noted that drilling and fracking around national parks can have impacts on their air and water quality as well as visitor experiences. Not to mention the fact that there is already drilling in 12 national park units around the country.

That’s why last week, the “Equal Ground” coalition kicked off an RV tour across the West highlighting how energy development and conservation on public lands are out of balance. Since 2009 the Obama administration has leased nearly 6.8 million acres of land to oil and gas companies while only permanently protecting 2.8 million acres. A few simple fixes — including taking a smarter approach near places like Mesa Verde National Park — can help right the balance between drilling and conservation, as seen in this video: