Judith Rondeau, right, and Simon Mannella of Quebec City, Quebec, hit the trails near Monitor and Merrimac buttes on Wednesday, July 27. Last week, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management released its long-awaited Master Leasing Plan, which aims to balance recreational activities with oil, gas and potash development on more than 785,000 acres of lands in southern Grand and northern San Juan counties. [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

Bureau of Land Management officials might deserve a break from their paperwork.

After four years of effort, the agency’s Canyon Country District Office has finally released its proposed Master Leasing Plan for more than 785,000 acres of land it administers in southern Grand and northern San Juan counties.

BLM officials say their plan to guide management activities over a 15-year period strikes a balance between conservation and recreation on the one hand and mineral development on the other.

In 2011 alone, the BLM logged more than 800,000 visits within the planning area. That number continues to grow, as recreationists and others flock to places like the area surrounding Dead Horse Point State Park and Canyonlands National Park’s Island in the Sky District, where oil and gas development also took off in recent years.

“The planning area … happens to contain really significant oil, gas and potash resources, but it also happens to be an area that contains world-class recreational resources,” Acting BLM Canyon Country District Manager Beth Ransel said.

Outdoor recreation-oriented groups hailed the proposal as a plan that would remedy federal lawmakers’ failure to give equal consideration to their interests.

“There’s no such thing as the Recreational Asset Protection Act,” Public Land Solutions Director Ashley Korenblat said. “… (The Master Leasing Plan) is really the best tool that we have right now to protect our world-class recreational assets.”

But critics said it threatens the future of an industry that has traditionally offered area residents living-wage jobs, while bolstering local government revenues through property tax payments and mineral lease revenues.

“It’s pretty discouraging when you come from a county that has survived on the extractive industry for years and years, and then they just continue to limit the (ability) of the extractive industry to really do anything,” San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams said.

Under the proposal, the agency intends to close 145,000 acres of exceptionally scenic sites and high-use recreation areas within the planning area to mineral development. At the same time, it would impose timing or no-surface occupancy restrictions on another 305,000 acres in order to limit development-related disturbances. The BLM would also separate oil and gas leasing areas from future potash development areas.

Fidelity Exploration & Production, which recently sold its oil and gas assets in Grand County, said in formal comments to the BLM that it believes the plan is strongly slanted toward conservation, at the expense of development.

“The MLP neglects to consider or respect existing oil and gas development areas (even those established as Federal Oil and Gas Units) and the preferred alternative would strongly restrict any continuing development within these focus areas,” the company said in its comments.

Ransel counters that the proposal offers the kind of certainty that the industry is looking for, while still offering protections for scenic and environmentally sensitive areas.

The plan would not affect existing valid leases, although the BLM says it will provide additional planning and analysis before new leases of oil, gas and potash in the area could be approved.

Ransel said that restrictions on the times when developers can work on their projects were designed to ensure that developers can responsibly continue to work on their projects.

“Part of the goal was to manage and minimize impacts to the surface to allow development to continue,” she said.

However, Adams said that he and other officials in San Juan County are concerned that the proposal will quash promising plans to develop a major deposit of potash, which farmers use as an agricultural fertilizer.

According to Adams, Potash Minerals conducted exploratory drilling at its K2O Utah Project in northern San Juan County on state-owned School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) property just “10 feet away” from BLM lands.

The Australian company found the “richest deposit” in the entire area, Adams said, but it can’t develop it, under the BLM’s proposal.

“It’s been proven that the mineral is there,” he said. “K2O drilled test holes, and they found it, but the BLM comes back and says there’s no-surface occupancy there.”

While oil and gas developers have put the latest and most innovative drilling technologies to work in the Kane Creek Unit in the Big Flat area, Adams noted that no such innovations exist for potash exploration and development.

“Potash cannot be extracted horizontally,” he said. “It has to be extracted (through) a hole straight down.”

If Potash Minerals or other potash developers find themselves hamstrung by the proposed restrictions, Living Rivers Conservation Director John Weisheit won’t suffer any heartburn.

While groups like the National Parks Conservation Association have spoken out in favor of the proposal, Living Rivers submitted comments against the plan, based on the allowances it makes for future potash development in certain areas.

Weisheit repeated his oft-stated position that groundwater and surface water resources in the region are extremely limited, and said potash investors need to understand that the drought-stressed basin has nothing left to give them.

“I’m just saying this until I’m red in the face: There is no more water in the Colorado River Basin,” Weisheit said. “Get a clue.”

Korenblat, meanwhile, said it’s misleading to claim that the proposal would hamper the potential to generate billions of dollars in revenue from potash mining.

Companies could only bring that claim to fruition, she said, if they developed every inch of potash inside the planning area, and even then, they would have to make billions of dollars in additional investments.

“It’s a little like saying, ‘If we could grow food on every acre of land in Grand County, we’d be food-independent,’” she said.

Korenblat said she suspects that’s why developers haven’t rushed to set up shop in the area.

“This potash has been available for 50 years, and nobody’s been mining it,” she said. “The reason it hasn’t been developed is because it’s not cost-effective to develop it.”

While the BLM says it wants to provide for responsible mineral development in the MLP area, it also notes that there are examples of what happens when large-scale mineral development negatively affects the recreation economy.

In Uintah County, for example, Dinosaur National Monument experienced a decline in visitation of more than 40 percent from 1999 – when Uintah County reversed years of declining oil and gas production – to 2014, according to the BLM. During the same period, oil production increased more than 358 percent, while natural gas production soared by more than 339 percent, the BLM says.

The Uintah Basin near Vernal might serve as a cautionary example of what could happen if the BLM adopted a no-action alternative that a majority of former Grand County Council members supported.

Under that scenario, the BLM found that it had the highest probability of displacing or reducing recreation visitation and associated spending due to the potential for greater concentrations of mineral development and the use of large-scale potash processing facilities in high-use recreation areas.

On the other hand, Ransel said she believes the agency’s final plan offers a greater balance to both sides. Altogether, the agency received more than 28,000 comments on the draft plan, and Ransel said it incorporated significant changes to its final proposal, based on public feedback.

Chief among those are additional stipulations to protect watersheds within the planning area, such as Courthouse Wash near Arches National Park, according to BLM Canyon Country District Public Affairs Specialist Lisa Bryant.

“We really felt that with all of the robust public involvement and work done with the cooperating agencies and tribes, we’ve found a way to responsibly develop (those) resources,” Ransel said.

“Certainly, the final (plan) is better because of that,” she added.

Agency says proposal balances recreation, development; Critics worry plan will stifle potash projects

Copies of the Final EIS are available online at go.usa.gov/xcbEh. For more information about the proposal, go to: www.blm.gov/ut/st/en/fo/moab/MLP/MoabMLP_RMPEIS.html.

After it published the proposal last week, the BLM kicked off a 30-day public protest period and the state’s 60-day “consistency review” on Friday, July 22. The agency hopes to sign off on its proposal by year’s end.