Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

Public Land Next To Capitol Reef, Arches, Canyonlands Could Be Auctioned Off For Drilling This Fall

Photo of a man walking toward the edge of the mesa
Creative Commons
The Island in the Sky mesa is part of Canyonlands National Park. It is approximately 1,000 feet higher than the surrounding terrain.

The Bureau Of Land Management has proposed leasing 114,000 acres of public land in Utah to energy developers, including land adjacent to some of Utah’s most iconic national parks. 

“What the BLM is proposing to do is blanket the most iconic red rock landscape in the U.S. with leases that it cannot deny in the future,” said Landon Newell, an attorney with conservation group Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. 

The lease sale is set for September and includes parcels within five miles of Arches, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef national parks. Once these parcels are leased, the BLM can only dictate how the development occurs. 

The BLM is required to address potential impacts of leasing public land in an environmental assessment before the leasing occurs, and the assessment for the September lease sale came out on June 9 kicking off a public comment period that ends July 9. 

But the assessment is lacking, according to Newell. While it acknowledges development of one parcel would be visible from Capitol Reef and suggests ways to mitigate the impact to visitor experience, it does not address potential impacts to visitor experience at Canyonlands or Arches. 

Land in the sale would be visible from Canyonlands, but the Bureau did not analyze the potential visual impacts of leasing that land in the assessment. 

Instead, the BLM labeled the three closest parcels to Canyonlands “no surface occupancy,” which means developers cannot set up equipment on the surface of the leased land. Rather, they must drill horizontally underground from nearby to search for oil underground.

Map showing the parcels
Credit Utah Bureau of Land Management
Parcels 79, 80 and 97, which are the parcels closest to Canyonlands National Park, are classified as "no surface occupancy." The requirement helps minimize effects to the viewshed or soundscape from those parcels, if sold and developed.

But a map prepared by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance shows many other parcels would be visible from Canyonlands. 

Map of land visible from a popular part of Canyonlands National Park
Credit Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance
The bright yellow areas are visible from the entrance road to Island In The Sky, part of Canyonlands National Park. Only the bottom three parcels in this map are labeled as "no surface occupancy" by the BLM.

Land proposed for the sale is also visible from Arches National Park and Dead Horse Point State Park, according to Terry Fisk, chief of resource stewardship and science for the Southeast Utah Group, which oversees Canyonlands and Arches. 

Fisk said he is still reviewing the impacts the proposed lease sale could have on visitors’ experiences at Arches and Canyonlands and is concerned with impacts to the views, air quality and soundscapes of the parks. 

One of Fisk’s biggest concerns is protecting both parks’ dark night skies. He said flaring natural gas, which is a byproduct of drilling that operators often burn off instead of selling, could impact the dark skies designations Arches and Canyonlands worked hard to secure. 

“A big component of our visitation is interested in dark skies,” he added. “We look at that closely, but protecting dark skies is not part of BLM’s mandate.” 

Despite his concerns, Fisk said he is unlikely to ask the BLM to defer any parcels in the sale. 

“At this point, we have little influence on what BLM puts in the lease sales,” he said. “They are constrained by the laws and policies that apply to them.” 

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.
KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.