The Bureau of Land Management disregarded a request by the National Park Service that it hold off leasing 17,000 acres of public land in Utah on Tuesday because of concerns that drilling there could harm Hovenweep National Monument’s views and air, groundwater and sound quality.
All 13 parcels were sold online as part of a broader sale, with the lease prices ranging from $3 to roughly $91 an acre.
According to an Oct. 23 letter, the Park Service outlined concerns about future oil and gas drilling activities on not just Hovenweep, but also three other sites under its jurisdiction in southern Utah: Arches and Canyonlands national parks and Natural Bridges National Monument.
The parcels in the southeast part of the state also lie near Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, although that is across the border in Colorado.
“The visiting public expects high-quality experiences across federal land, and we are concerned that continuing to offer parcels for oil and gas exploration and development in proximity to our parks will be detrimental” to those experiences,” wrote Kate Cannon, superintendent of the Park Service’s Southeast Utah Group.
The seven-page letter critiques several aspects of the environmental analysis the bureau conducted in preparation for the sale, including the extent to which smog-forming ozone represents a threat to Canyonlands and the fact that the bureau did not consider “the significant potential for degradation of dark night skies and soundscapes that would result from oil and gas exploration and development on the lease parcels.”
BLM officials said they worked closely with the NPS on the lease sale, meeting in December to address the agency’s concerns. The bureau expanded on its analysis and added notices in some parcels that drilling’s effects on light and sound should be taken into consideration.
“We worked diligently with the National Park Service in developing conditions to address the concerns outlined in their October letter,” Ed Roberson, BLM’s Utah state director, said in a statement Tuesday. “We went ahead with the lease sale after resolving their concerns.”
But Nada Culver, senior counsel for the Wilderness Society, an advocacy group, questioned the extent to which the bureau heeded the Park Service’s objections.
Given “the very specific requests of the Park Service to add stipulations to leases and complete a regional evaluation of impacts on air, water, night skies and soundscape before leasing, and that BLM did none of those things, it is hard to see how their concerns have been resolved,” Culver said in an email Tuesday.
BLM’s push to auction land this month for oil and gas leasing across the West has sparked controversy in multiple states, prompting Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to defer a lease sale in New Mexico and postpone the auction of several parcels in Montana. But the department pressed ahead with Tuesday’s auction in Utah, which enjoys considerable support among state lawmakers.
Stephen Bloch, legal director with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said in an interview that his advocacy group successfully blocked a similar BLM lease sale a decade ago in Utah after the Park Service raised similar objections. He noted that the furor over that auction — which was eventually scuttled by the Obama administration — led to a Master Leasing Plan for Utah’s San Juan County that deferred leasing of those 13 parcels until further planning was done. Zinke revoked that plan and others last month.
“We’re seeing that BLM is running roughshod over the most spectacular public lands in the country,” Bloch said, and the fact that it “ignored” the comments submitted by a sister agency “clearly tees it up for litigation.”
Katie Schoettler, a spokeswoman for House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), said in an email that BLM had done a thorough job of researching how any drilling would affect the state’s landscape.
“We have full confidence in the agency charged with issuing this lease sale and for coordinating internally with other federal agencies, tribes and local stakeholders on considering the environmental impact of such decision,” she said.