Five years ago, on Dec. 19, 2008, climate activist Tim DeChristopher bid $1.8 million for 14 parcels of land north of Canyonlands National Park during a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) oil and gas lease sale.

DeChristopher was removed from the auction by federal agents, taken into custody and served 21 months in prison. The U.S. Department of Interior canceled many of the leases, stating that parcels had been rushed into auction.

“When the local community learned of the possible sale of these critical parcels, the community —many of whom depend directly the recreation economy — were shocked to learn that no protections were in place for these high value recreation and conservation areas,” said Ashley Korenblat, owner of Western Spirit Cycling and the director of Public Land Solutions. “Everyone assumed that the BLM knew the importance of these popular recreation sites and was managing them accordingly. Which in fact they were until the (Bush) Administration required the Moab BLM release all the deferred parcels.”

Weeks after President Barack Obama took office, the Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar rescinded 77 lease parcels for oil and gas drilling, denying them to winning bidders.

“The Obama Administration created a new program for oil and gas leasing to be applied on certain federal lands. This program is called the Master Leasing Plan (MLP) reforms, and would replace the parcel by parcel nominating system driven by industry, with a more comprehensive landscape wide approach that would take into account all uses of the land and work to mitigate and optimize industry needs with those of other stakeholders, including recreation and conservation interests,” Korenblat said.

The Canyon Country BLM District has been working on the 783,000-acre MLP since 2012. The parcels now being studied and considered surround Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.

Lance Porter, the manager of the Canyon Country District, said that the district is now working on an Environment Impact Statement (EIS) that will analyze likely mineral development scenarios and alternatives with varying mitigation levels for leasing.

“We are working on the alternative development phase of the EIS process,” Porter said. “We anticipate that a draft EIS will be available late fall 2014.”

BLM-Utah state director Juan Palma said that through the implementation of Obama’s leasing reform and preparation of the MLPs “we are able to ensure that we are leasing the most appropriate public lands in utah for oil and gas development.”

“Preparing MLPs, like the one underway for the Moab area, will help us plan for environmentally responsible development in a defined area and identify ways in which we can protect and improve the public lands we manage while also supporting the Obama administration’s all-of-the-above energy strategy,” Palma said.

At this time, almost all parcels in a lease sale are proposed by oil and gas companies that may be interested in developing in the area.

“If they nominate it, we have to at least consider it,” said Don Ogaard, chief of the Utah BLM leasing support team.

With the implementation of the Mineral Lease Plan, areas will already be determined that would have recreational conflict, or be appropriate for resource development.

The MLP is limited in scope and focuses more on air quality in highly used recreational areas or near national parks, said Rock Smith from the Moab BLM Office.

“It does not look at roads or wilderness areas,” he said.

No new mineral leases will be allowed in the areas that are now under review until the MLP process is completed.

“Any existing leases, we’re still leasing,” Smith said in an earlier interview. “There is as much activity as there ever has been. Oil and gas development is still occurring at historic rates.”

The increase of oil and gas development in Grand County during the last year has been an economic boon to special service districts, such as the Canyonlands Health Care District that manages the Canyonlands Care Center. Monies earned by oil and gas development on federal lands are sent to the state and then shared with the counties to be used to provide residents with basic services, such as transportation, recreation and health care.

Last year, the Canyonlands Care Center was in a financial crisis, losing a minimum of $15,000 a month in operations. According to estimates based on 2012 mineral lease monies, the health care district would have received $515,000 during 2013. Instead, due to increases in oil and gas leases in Grand County, they have already received $1,126,068. They still have two more payments remaining to be received for the year.

Due to the increase of mineral lease monies the health district has been able to pay off considerable debt, as well as have two years’ worth of bond service on the care center building in reserves.

Kate Cannon, the superintendent for the Southeastern Utah Group of National Parks, is a staunch support of the MLP.

“It will be a good thing,” she said. “I’m very optimistic about the outcome.”

In October 2008, when she discovered that sensitive lands near Arches National Park were being considered for the sale, she called BLM’s Canyon Country District office.

“Right at the end of October, we became aware of the magnitude of that proposed sale,” Cannon said.

She identified 19 parcels that the BLM removed from the sale.

Some of those parcels were within the view shed of the Windows District and Delicate Arch.

“It’s not Arches without that sweeping view of the La Sals and beyond,” Cannon said. “It’s not the individual pieces, it’s the whole expanse.”

Some of those parcels now include BLM campgrounds within the Colorado River corridor in the Big Bend area of State Route 128.

She said several other parcels were also removed for various reasons.

“That often gets lost in the discussion,” Cannon said.

Cannon wants to look forward to the benefits the MLP will provide to protect the landscape, but also provide for oil, gas and potash development.

“The MLP gives us an opportunity to allow for all of those uses to proceed in a compatible way. It can sustain recreational uses of the area that drive and support the economy, as well as the oil and gas development and potash development that is important to the economy,” Cannon said. “It helps work out the variety of uses over the long-term in a sustainable way.”

Mineral Lease Plan would evaluate suitability of lands near national parks for oil and gas leases

It can sustain recreational uses of the area that drive and support the economy, as well as the oil and gas development and potash development that is important to the economy,”