Blog: Moab Plan a Step Towards Protecting Cultural and Recreational Land Use

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The Arches and Canyonlands of Utah evoke thoughts of remoteness and mystery, fantastical vistas, wild geological formations, and voices echoing impossible distances. For many of us who live out west, these places represent the heart of what it means to find solitude and be in touch with the land, in love with the landscape, tiny in comparison to creation, and more grand in spirit than one could ever imagine. These places open the soul.

Now imagine if oil and gas rigs marred the stunning vistas, and a spaghetti of access roads scarred the solitude. Instead of hearing ravens and wind, you could hear the clank and clamor of the extractive industry. Imagine mountain biking or hiking on trails criss-crossed by truck traffic and heavy machinery, or fishing a polluted river.

Five years ago today, on December 19, 2008, things began to move in that direction when 77 potentially harmful oil and gas leases were sold, many of which were in sensitive areas around Moab, Utah. It was an egregious attempt by energy companies to secure controversial leases during the waning days of an overly industry-friendly administration.

However, the sale of “The 77” was quickly met by resistance from the Moab community, conservationists and the recreation industry. In 2009, Ken Salazar, a new Interior Secretary under a new administration, deferred the 77 leases, and a new process for leasing was later created — Master Leasing Plans. In previous blogs and interviews, I have mentioned these plans, but what do they do? Why are they better than what we have had?

In the past, what we have had is a program where the industry largely drives decisions about public lands energy development and decides what land gets put up for auction and when. While industry nominates those lands, their only filter is the value of money they plan to make and there isn’t an incentive to consider other values, even for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Under this system we have had, the BLM can defer or delay certain leases for various reasons, but agency decisions are ultimately subject to the caprices of presidential administrations, as we saw in 2008.

This approach which puts the oil and gas industry in the driver seat cuts against the grain of America. The protection of public lands and access to those lands for recreation has widespread and strong support from Americans according to a Hart Research poll released this week by the Center for American Progress.

Master leasing plans, in contrast, require the land mangers to take a long, landscape-wide look at development and not just a piecemeal approach. They take into consideration other uses and values, including fishing, hunting, hiking, biking and indigenous Latino and Native American traditional cultural uses of the land. They require attention to conservation, and outreach to and input from our communities. They also help us prepare for change rather than experience the rapid, sometimes annual boom and bust of an industry, because ideally we will know years ahead of time when the industry will come — and when it will go. They require plans for mitigation, which will keep land, wildlife and local communities from being left in shambles.

Master leasing plans make sense. However, as I write on this 5-year anniversary of the 77 leases, a master leasing plan for the Moab region has been developed but not implemented. Hikers, bikers, rafters, fishermen and businesses in Moab are entering another year, and may enter another visitor season, without assurance of a balanced approach to development. Local Moab outfitter Arlo Tejada of Sheri Griffith Expeditions wrote Interior Secretary Sally Jewell earlier this year in support of the approach:

Our community, Moab, UT represents the MLP area with the greatest dependence on the recreation economy, and thus the highest risk from incremental degradation of the landscape caused by resource development. While outdoor recreation has become a key economic driver throughout the U.S., rural communities surrounded by federal lands are uniquely dependent on those lands and the recreation assets they contain. Recreation-driven businesses are supplementing, and in certain regions eclipsing, revenue flows from traditional resource extraction industries. That is certainly the case in Grand County, Utah and the Moab area where over 70% of the local economy depends on visitors. In the in the case of our company those visitors are here to experience our incredible rivers. We have made significant investments in our company with the assumption that these rivers will continue in their natural state.

As Latinos interested in both recreational and cultural values of the land, we need to encourage the plan’s implementation. The Moab Master Leasing Plan and development of future plans in other areas can be a big step towards protecting the landscapes and lifeways we value the most.