Climate

Obama Administration Proposes First-Ever Protections For Recreation Lands Near Moab, Utah

CREDIT: AP Photo/Beth Harpaz

This Aug. 27, 2005 photo in Moab, Utah shows a sandstone formation in Arches National Park called Balanced Rock, center, that appears to sit atop a conical mass.

A long-anticipated management plan for national public lands near Moab, Utah, unveiled last Friday by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), is being hailed by outdoor recreation and conservation leaders for its landmark protections of the area’s iconic slickrock trails and backcountry experiences.

The so-called “master leasing plan,” or MLP, officially published in the Federal Register on Friday, is a new Obama administration policy tool that aims to reduce the environmental impacts and conflicts associated with resource extraction on public lands, such as oil and gas drilling and potash mining.

The draft plan, which covers upwards of one million acres, prohibits development or surface disturbance on almost 500,000 acres. Under the plan, new oil and gas drilling would be prohibited on 145,000 acres of land, while surface occupancy would be restricted on another 306,000 acres. Close to one-quarter of the planning area already open to leasing would not be affected. The plan further provides strong protections for the famous Arches and Canyonlands National Parks by closing off mineral leasing and development on adjacent BLM lands, as well as prohibiting future development or surface occupancy at Fisher Towers, Porcupine Rim, Six-Shooter, and Goldbar Canyon.

In releasing the plan, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell argued that the proposal takes a balanced approach to development and conservation in one of the most treasured areas of the American Southwest.

“Moab has some of the most iconic scenery on the Colorado Plateau, but it is also rich with energy resources, so we need to take a landscape-level approach to minimize potential resource conflicts,” said Jewell. “As the first Master Leasing Plan in Utah, this collaborative planning process should serve as a model for how communities can work together to balance development with protecting world-class environmental, cultural and recreational resources.”

Moab is known as a world-class destination for outdoor recreation enthusiasts. Under the preferred alternative of the plan, recreation in the area would generate $761 million in economic impact to the state and support 1,086 jobs. Oil and gas development, however, would support only 171 jobs and generate $365 million in economic impact. Outdoor recreation is major revenue source for the State of Utah, contributing $5.8 million annually to the state economy. Tourism in the State, bolstered by outdoor recreational opportunities, supports more than 124,000 jobs with visitors spending over $6.5 billion annually.

“About two million visitors each year enjoy a wide variety of recreation experiences within the Moab MLP area such as biking, climbing, and ATV use,” said Jason Keith of Public Land Solutions, a non-profit focused on comprehensive recreation planning. “The BLM’s MLP strikes a much better balance between oil and gas development and the protection of our recreation economy. … Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has created a national model here in Moab showing how we can work together and find win-win solutions for our public lands.”

The Obama administration developed the MLP model in 2010 in response to a national controversy that erupted after the administration of President George W. Bush proposed to allow oil and gas drilling on pristine and sensitive lands near Utah national parks. President Obama’s first Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, halted the 77 leases that had been issued and asked then-Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Hayes to lead an effort to modernize and reform oil and gas leasing on America’s public lands.

The Moab MLP is one of the first high-level tests of the Obama Administration leasing reform efforts. As illustrated in a video released by the Center for American Progress last year, the Moab MLP is expected to serve as a model for balancing competing interests, including development, conservation, and recreation, on public lands.

“The draft Moab Master Leasing Plan is a significant step toward better BLM management of oil, gas and other minerals in the heart of Utah’s red rock country,” said Stephen Bloch, Legal Director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “The public and local communities will know that many of southeastern Utah’s stunningly beautiful canyons and mesas won’t be marred by the sight and sound of drill rigs and pump jacks.”

The draft Moab MLP is one of a dozen MLPs for Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah already complete or underway. To date, the Interior Department has leased 34 million acres of public lands to oil and gas companies and 6,000 drilling permits — the equivalent of almost two years of drilling at the industry’s current pace.

The Interior Department will take public comment on the draft Moab MLP until November 19, 2015.

Nidhi Thakar is the Deputy Director of the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress. You can follow her on Twitter at @NidhiJThakar.