Environmentalists Fight Feds Over Drilling in Utah's Treasured Public Lands

Utah's San Rafael Swell is the scene of an energy showdown between conservationists who want to preserve this unique landscape (potentially a national monument), private oil and gas companies that want to drill there, and the BLM that has to decide.
September 23, 2013, 10am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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Dan Frosch writes that in "Utah, which has long been ground zero for the fight over public lands", the unique swell, "with its miles of twisting sandstone spires and towering mesas, has long been a draw for hiking and canyoneering, and has even been considered for designation as a national monument." When environmentalist discovered that "the federal Bureau of Land Management announced its intention to open portions of the 2,000-square-mile stretch of central Utah for drilling by private oil and gas companies, conservation groups reacted with alarm."

“We were very surprised and disappointed to see this turn of events,” said Steve Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “It’s a step backwards. To see a place like the San Rafael Swell be put up on the chopping block makes no sense.”

Bloch's group and other conservation groups have "filed a formal protest with the bureau, asking that it withdraw 55 of the proposed leases."

Those advocating that more drilling be allowed, such as Commissioner Jeff Horrocks of Emery County, argue that "environmental groups that are complaining don’t really know where the leases are or don’t care.” 

The San Rafael controversy notwithstanding, Frosch notes that "formal protests lodged over controversial leases were down, to 317 last year from 1,475 in 2009. Leases are also down. In the 2012 fiscal year, some 1,729 were issued, the fewest in any year for a decade, according to bureau data."

Cody Stewart, energy adviser to Gov. Gary R. Herbert of Utah, said that Mr. Herbert had no issue with the leases, and that there were other parts of the Swell that better warranted protection.

According to the BLM's "Recreation Guide to the San Rafael Desert", "The San Rafael Swell, 2,000 square miles of public land, is known for its scenic sandstone formations, deep canyons, desert streams, and expansive panoramas.  Aside from Interstate (1-70), only old uranium mines, dirt roads, livestock improvements, and simple recreation facilities are evident." It also describes its geological history. Additional pictures and information can be found at www.sanrafaelswell.org.

In an April, 2012 comprehensive piece in National Parks Traveler, with several videos attached, editor and founder Kurt Repanshek asks if the swell is "Missing From The System?".

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Published on Thursday, September 19, 2013 in The New York Times - U.S.
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