Moab and Grand County officials breathed a sigh of relief last week, when the Bureau of Land Management announced it will defer leasing land inside the Sand Flats Recreation Area to oil and gas developers in an upcoming lease sale.
But the fight to protect Sand Flats — home of the famous Slickrock Bike Trail — isn't over yet, according to Grand County Councilwoman Mary McGann.
“Defer means it is deferred for just this time,” she said. “So if someone did an expression of interest again, those parcels could be put up for lease.”
The BLM allows people to nominate anonymously almost any parcel of public land for competitive leasing by submitting “an expression of interest.” It's what happened in this situation, and it could happen again if the same person or company renominates the land.
McGann speculated that whoever nominated the parcels in Sand Flats could have ulterior motives, given that past attempts to drill in the area have proved unsuccessful. An analysis by the Moab Times-Independent looked at 37 extraction wells in a 16-mile radius of Sand Flats, and found only one that produced any oil.
“We don’t know if it’s a legitimate company,” McGann said. “It could be someone who just wants to see communities like Moab and [The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance] and Sierra Club scramble.”
McGann is part of a coalition of local officials and business owners that launched an aggressive campaign asking the BLM to remove the land inside of Sand Flats from the auction. Both Grand County and the City of Moab passed resolutions that oppose drilling inside of Sand Flats. Moab Mayor Emily Niehaus called on Gov. Gary Herbert to oppose the inclusion of Sand Flats in the sale, which he did last week.
In a statement, the BLM said it understands the public concern about drilling in Sand Flats, and that it is “committed to supporting recreation and protecting natural resources in the Moab Field Office.”
Niehaus cheered the deferral as a victory for Moab and thanked Herbert for his support.
“My hope is that advocacy groups can see that if future parcels are nominated that are of concern, that if we just state clearly what our interests are, we clearly do have partners listening,” she said.
But McGann said she plans to work to get the recreation area, which is above the county’s main aquifer, removed from all future lease sales.
“I want it gone” from lease sales, McGann said of the Sand Flats area. “It’s a waste of energy on everybody’s part to have to fight having oil production over our sole-source aquifer, plus being in this recreation area.”
Land inside of Sand Flats was nominated and considered for lease in 2008, said Landon Newell, an attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. But the BLM also pulled it from that sale in response to public opposition.
“It shows that without BLM taking action to permanently protect this area, parcels there still could come back up,” he said.
Newell added that the BLM has the authority to refuse to consider leasing land inside of Sand Flats in the future, but is unlikely to exercise that authority under the Trump Administration.