Slickrock is perhaps the most well-known trail in all of Moab. Mountain bikers, hikers and OHV drivers from around the world flock to the Sand Flats Recreation Area to explore Slickrock’s unique geology and formations, which have very few analogs anywhere else. Despite the area’s popularity for recreation, it was under threat after the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) included two parcels within Sand Flats Recreation Area to the list of areas being considered for an oil and gas lease sale in June. Intense pressure from local groups led the BLM to removing the parcels from consideration, but threats to similar areas remain.
For clarity, it’s important to address the implications and processes that were involved in the proposed lease and development. Land within Sand Flats Recreation Area is under a “No Surface Occupancy” regulation, which means no oil and gas extraction infrastructure would have been placed on top of the Slickrock or anywhere within the Recreation Area. Rather, a developer would have had to use directional drilling, in which surface operations from a nearby parcel would extract resources by drilling horizontally underneath Sand Flats. It’s possible that such an operation would have had little impact on the recreation opportunities available within Sand Flats, though the bigger concern is that the area was ever considered appropriate for energy development.
The parcels under Sand Flats had always theoretically been candidates for development, but prior to the Trump administration, they likely wouldn’t have been considered plausible choices. Previously, the BLM would study the sustainability of any parcel which was nominated—through an Expression of Interest (EOI)—before being placed up for auction. Local and state officials would weigh the merits of energy extraction against benefits of the area as a wildlife habitat, recreation area or watershed protection area to determine the area’s suitability for development. After president Trump signed Executive Order 13783—the “Energy Dominance” policy—in March 2017, however, federal agencies were instructed to remove all regulatory and procedural obstacles to energy development. Leases nominated under the new guidelines are almost always offered for auction, which is the alarming factor underlying why the two parcels below Sand Flats Recreation were given serious consideration.
As much as I and many others would have hated to see our favorite recreation areas impacted, there is a much larger concern to address which should have excluded the two parcels beneath Sand Flats Recreation Area from consideration for energy development: water. The two parcels are within the Moab/Spanish Valley watershed, and sit directly above the Glen Canyon Aquifer, the “sole source aquifer” providing water to 90% of the Grand County population. Even with meticulous planning and execution, drilling and fracking carry the risk of contaminating the groundwater that makes the entire area livable. Quite frankly, that possibility should have been a nonstarter for even considering the proposals.
While these two parcels have been spared, the same process is playing out more broadly all across Utah and the American West. Land use in Utah is always a contentious issue, and it’s more important than ever to be involved in the process to ensure our best interests are being considered. Contact your local representatives and the Governor’s office to make your voice heard on these issues.
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