U.S. Bureau of Land Management Land and Minerals Resource Adviser Brent Northrup, left, talks with Jason Keith of Public Land Solutions at a Sept. 29 public workshop on the agency's Moab Master Leasing Plan. [Photo by Eric Trenbeath / Moab Sun News]

Stakeholders and local officials have begun to weigh in on the long-awaited Moab Master Leasing Plan, which, when finalized, will regulate future oil, gas and potash development on public lands within Grand and San Juan counties.

The federal effort seeks to balance the often-competing interests of resource development with recreation, tourism and the protection of scenic landscapes for which the region is famous.

On Sept. 22, the Moab City Council voted unanimously to send a letter of support to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) applauding the agency for its efforts toward striking a balance and for recognizing the vital role that tourism plays in Moab’s economy.

“Ensuring healthy public lands and a strong vision toward balance is key for the economic future of Moab businesses and the quality of life for Moab’s residents,” the letter says. “We believe that the BLM should adopt the strongest plan possible to protect tourism and recreation values on our public lands and rivers while facilitating the responsible development of oil and gas drilling and potash mining.”

The plan has garnered additional support from recreation and environmental interests, and is being met with caution from the resource extraction industry.

Lowell Braxton, Utah representative for the Western Energy Alliance, told the Moab Sun News that he feels the process is redundant, but that if it leads to regulatory certainty, it would be a good thing.

“If we know what shape the sandbox is, then we can play in it,” he said.

Braxton said that it is better to participate in the process than to be locked out.

“I think the process we are in today is a good one,” he said. “Ideally, if we talk to one another, some of the angst can go out of this.”

Jason Keith of Public Land Solutions, a nonprofit that works to facilitate interaction between resource extraction and recreation assets, said the process is on the right track, but that it could be even better.

“We are asking for expanded protection for recreational assets that are the backbone of our regional economy,” he said.

Keith said he would like to see greater buffer zones around established trails and other recreation areas, including campgrounds and climbing and filming areas.

The Grand County Council has yet to offer a formal opinion, but at a workshop held in the council chambers on Tuesday, Sept. 29, council member Lynn Jackson said that the plan is anything but balanced.

“They are intending to ramp down mineral development,” Jackson said. “This is not going to work in the long run for Grand County.”

Jackson, who has worked as a consultant for the potash industry, said the plan has too many overlapping stipulations and timing restraints placed upon development, and that there is a disconnect between how capital is raised for projects and the rules on the ground.

“This plan will kill future mineral development in this area,” he said. “No mineral company in their right mind will come here.”

In August, the BLM’s Moab Field Office released a draft Environmental Impact Statement on the plan for public comment. The draft included four alternatives, including a “no action” alternative – which is the least restrictive for development, as well as two alternatives that are the most restrictive, and the agency’s preferred alternative.

The plan will serve as an amendment to the agency’s Resource Management Plan for the area that was developed in 2008, and is an Obama administration mandate made in response to a controversial lease sale made under the outgoing Bush administration.

Under that sale, 77 leases totaling over 130,000 acres were auctioned in Utah, including some within the viewshed of Delicate Arch. Environmental activist Tim DeChristopher spent two years in prison for bidding on some of the leases without intending to buy them. The leases were subsequently canceled after the U.S. Department of the Interior determined they had been auctioned without sufficient environmental review.

BLM Canyon Country District Manager Lance Porter said the Master Leasing Plan offers “a great opportunity to look at the resources and manage them responsibly.”

“These resources are necessary for us as a country,” Porter said. “The MLP helps us develop these resources while protecting scenic quality and other resources such as recreation.”

Under the BLM’s preferred alternative, lands surrounding Arches National Park, and a quarter-mile buffer adjacent to Canyonlands, would be closed to leasing. Other areas determined to have high scenic or recreation values would have no-surface occupancy restrictions placed on them, while other areas would have controlled-use stipulations that regulate how much ground can be disturbed, and when, depending on factors such as wildlife patterns.

The plan as proposed would not regulate valid existing leases, and nearly 25 percent of the area is currently leased.

The BLM’s preferred alternative precludes overlapping uses of potash and oil and gas, which Jackson said is the single biggest issue he had. Under the alternative, an area north of Dubinky Well would be set aside as a potash leasing area for 10 years where no oil and gas would be permitted. If the area is not developed in that time, then it would revert to oil and gas.

“This 10-year window may kill it for the future,” Jackson said.

BLM Land and Minerals Resource Adviser Brent Northrup, who serves as the Master Leasing Plan’s project manager, said the agency also plans to implement phased leasing for potash to see what the impacts would look like.

“We’re trying to reduce visual impacts for the 2 million visitors who come to this area every year,” Northrup said. “With Moab Salt, you have a thousand acres that are essentially an industrial area. We want to be careful where we place those facilities.”

Moab outfitter Brett Sutteer said that as the popularity of the area increases, and with more pressure being applied to the last of the open spaces, there is no better time to mitigate all the competing uses.

“This is the bare minimum for preserving the quality of experience that people come here to enjoy,” Sutteer said. “Where are they going to go, if not here, to experience quiet, solitude and un-impacted landscapes?”

Proposal seeks to balance how land is designated for mineral use, recreation and protection

This is the bare minimum for preserving the quality of experience that people come here to enjoy. Where are they going to go, if not here, to experience quiet, solitude and un-impacted landscapes?

The BLM will be accepting public comment on the Moab Master Leasing Plan through Nov. 23. For more information, go to: www.blm.gov/ut/st/en/fo/moab/MLP/deis.html.