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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

Moab Locals Call On BLM To Remove Slickrock Bike Trail From Upcoming Energy Lease Sale

Photo of bikers on the Slick Rock trail
Wikimedia Commons
The 12-mile Slickrock Bike Trail is world-famous among mountain bikers. Established in 1969, the trail now draws thousands of visitors to Moab annually.

Updated 1:21 p.m. MT 2/19/20

MOAB — The Sand Flats recreation area is home to two of Moab’s main attractions: the world-famous Slickrock Bike Trail and the Hell’s Revenge Jeep Trail. Together, they draw thousands of visitors here every year, contributing millions of dollars to the local economy.

But local officials and business owners worry that could change if the Bureau of Land Management allows oil and gas exploration beneath the slickrock recreation area that helped make this former mining town an international destination and playground. 

The BLM is considering whether to lease two parcels inside the recreation area to oil and gas developers, sparking questions about just how far the Trump administration will go to promote domestic energy production.

We are shocked that this Department of Interior is ignoring local needs and appears to be oblivious to the real economy of our region,” said Karen Guzman Newton, owner of Poison Spider Bicycles in Moab. 

On a conference call with reporters Tuesday, Moab Mayor Emily Niehaus asked the state to intervene on behalf of the City of Moab and Grand County, both of which have passed resolutions opposing any drilling inside of Sand Flats. 

“My request today is one for our governor, Gary Herbert, that he will support Moab City in ... prioritizing the recreation economy over resource development,” she said. 

In response, the Governor’s Office released this statement on Tuesday: 

“The Governor appreciates the unique beauty of the Slickrock area and wants to ensure that nothing is done that would be detrimental to the visitor experience or local water quality. He has asked the Bureau of Land Management to defer the lease sales and consider more fully how they might impact those factors.”

In an email on Tuesday night, Nicollee Gaddis-Wyatt, field manager for the BLM’s Moab Office, confirmed that the agency has not decided whether to remove the parcels from the lease sale. 

“We are committed to supporting recreation and protecting natural resources in the Moab Field Office and to listening to our neighbors and representatives in the local community,” she said.

Over 190,000 people visit Sand Flats each year, and they contribute an estimated $7 million to the local economy, according to Grand County Councilmember Mary McGann, who joined Niehaus on the call with reporters. 

McGann also highlighted the impact the drilling could have on Grand County’s sole water source, the Glen Canyon Aquifer. She said companies would have to drill through the aquifer to get to any oil or gas. The BLM declined to comment on whether drilling would occur through the aquifer. 

McGann raised concerns about the internal workings of the BLM, which co-manages Sand Flats Recreation Area through a special partnership with Grand County. She said officials at the local BLM office appear to oppose drilling inside of Sand Flats, yet the parcels have not yet been pulled from the proposed lease sale. 

“I do not get the sense, when I’ve been in the meetings, that they are comfortable with the decision to have these parcels [in the lease sale], but they are also held at a standard where they really are unable to express their political points of view,” she said. “I believe if they would have had the same rights that they have had in the past, they would not have allowed these parcels to be put up for lease.” 

The county will consider taking legal action if the BLM includes the parcels in the upcoming lease sale, McGann said. The public comment period for the sale is set to open Thursday but is subject to change, a BLM spokesperson said.

Kate Groetzinger is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southeast Bureau in San Juan County. Follow Kate on Twitter @kgroetzi

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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