By Dino Grandoni and Juliet Eilperin
It's one of the best-known mountain biking trails in the world. But the Trump administration may lease it for oil and natural gas drilling.
A preliminary proposal from the Bureau of Land Management to auction the right to drill under Utah's Slickrock Trail has left cyclists, residents and even the state's Republican governor wondering why the Trump administration is considering undercutting what has become a major source of tourism revenue for the region.
For more than half a century, the trail has drawn mountain bikers from around the world eager to ride its undulating and otherworldly sandstone hills.
“It really is the most famous bike trail in the world,” said Ashley Korenblat, chief executive of Western Spirit Cycling, a mountain bike outfitter based in the nearby city of Moab. “It was one of the first places that was really identified as an incredible place to ride a mountain bike.”
The nearly 6,600 acres that could be leased in June in southeast Utah represent just a fraction of the millions of acres of federal lands and waters the Trump administration has auctioned to oil and gas drillers in an effort to boost domestic energy production.
But the two proposed parcels in the Sand Flats Recreation Area, which surrounds the 9.6-mile bike trail, have sparked controversy in Utah's Grand County even before the federal government starts accepting comments Thursday. The BLM has not yet finalized the list of parcels to be included in the June auction. And if offered, the two Sand Flats parcels would come with a stipulation requiring the lease holder to find a suitable location on nearby state-owned or private land from which to horizontally drill for the fossil fuels.
Trump ally and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert is asking the BLM to defer leasing the two parcels, one of which would cover over 60 percent of the trail itself. “The Governor appreciates the unique beauty of the Slickrock area and wants to ensure that nothing is done that would be detrimental to the visitor experience or local water quality,” Herbert spokeswoman Anna Lehnardt said in a statement Tuesday.
Emily Niehaus, the mayor of Moab, said she is not against nearby oil and gas drilling. But she takes issue with drilling under the Slickrock Trail when many other areas have yet to be drilled.
“There are so many, many parcels in Grand County that have been leased for oil and gas that have not yet been developed,” Niehaus said. The five-member Moab City Council passed a resolution last month opposing leasing the two parcels in the Sand Flats.
Now those outside the county are taking notice. A group of 80 outdoors companies, including Clif Bar and the backpack makers Kelty and Dakine, wrote in a letter to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt that inclusion of the Slickrock Trail in the oil and gas auction was “an astounding move that threatens one of the most iconic recreation experiences in the country.”
In a statement Tuesday, BLM’s Moab field manager Nicollee Gaddis-Wyatt said the agency understands “that the public has concerns about some of the parcels that are currently under internal consideration” for the June lease sale.
“We are committed to supporting recreation and protecting natural resources in the Moab Field Office and to listening to our neighbors and representatives in the local community,” she said. “The BLM has not yet made a final decision regarding what parcels will be proposed for sale.”
The Sand Flats Recreation Area, which is jointly managed by the BLM and the county, attracts more than 191,000 visitors a year and generates $700,000 in revenue for the county government, according to Mary McGann, chairwoman of the Grand County Council. The controversial parcels were nominated for auction by an anonymous individual or company.
Korenblat emphasized that local BLM officials had worked closely with local residents to protect the trail, and they had urged the state office not to offer the two parcels as possible leases.
In a statement, BLM Utah spokeswoman Kimberly Finch said her office works closely with field and district staff on quarterly lease sales. “BLM Utah does not discuss internal discussions and deliberative decision-making between the field and state office,” she said.
There are other concerns besides the bike trail.
Moab is a hub not just for mountain bikers also for visitors to Arches National Park, which attracted more than 1.6 million parkgoers in 2018. The bright light from any nearby flaring off excess gas may spoil the star-speckled sky over the nearby park, which draws astronomy buffs for its awe-inspiring views of the Milky Way.
And the area proposed for leasing overlaps with an aquifer Moab relies on for drinking water.
“Grand County has no alternative drinking water source,” McGann said.
The residents of Moab have fought this battle before. Late into George W. Bush's last year in office, the BLM tried leasing tens of thousands of acres near Arches and Canyonlands national parks in Utah before backing down because of public outcry and a lawsuit.
I’m excited to launch a new voter registration campaign with @ClimateRealAF focused on engaging youth to vote on #climate this November. We start with a visit to @TexasSouthern tomorrow with my friend @DrBobBullard. https://t.co/omvFoSelxO— Al Gore (@algore) February 18, 2020
— Al Gore’s latest climate effort is about voting out Trump: The former vice president is launching a voter registration push, initially targeting voters in critical battleground states. The objective is to urge voters to consider climate change when they cast their ballots. Gore also wants to defeat Trump, BuzzFeed reports.
- What he says: “For those of us concerned about the future of the Earth’s climate and balance, this election is extremely important,” Gore told BuzzFeed. “…Young people in particular have been both more concerned about climate than other age groups and traditionally less likely to vote in large percentages. I want to do everything I possibly can to contribute to the registration and turnout and voting by those who are concerned about the climate crisis.”
- The details: The new effort will be run by Gore’s Climate Reality Action Fund. “Gore has primarily raised money for this new campaign through charitable donations, he told BuzzFeed News, but he declined to name specific donors. His campaign confirmed that none of the donations came from any of the presidential candidates, including the wealthy climate philanthropists Tom Steyer or Michael Bloomberg,” per BuzzFeed.
— Trump administration targets subsidiary of Russian oil company: The Trump administration announced sanctions against the trading and marketing arm of state-controlled Russian oil giant Rosneft, targeting the company for allegedly helping Venezuela’s own state-owned oil industry export crude, The Post’s Karen DeYoung and Anthony Faiola report.
- What the administration says: An administration official who briefed reporters on the move said Rosneft Trading “propped up the [Venezuelan] oil sector and actively tried to evade” existing sanctions on doing business with the Venezuelan government.
- The impact on oil prices: “Although the sanctioning of Russia’s oil trade in Venezuela has raised the prospect of a spike in global oil prices, an official said that ‘we’re confident that energy markets will remain stable.’ ”
— Environmental groups suing over Trump rollback of waterway protection: A coalition of environmental groups filed a notice of intent to sue the Trump administration over its rule scaling back federal protections for waterways. “The coming suit, which is spearheaded by the Center for Biological Diversity and includes a number of waterway protection groups, is the first of what may be many suits against the rule,” the Hill reports.
— Where’s Perry? Former energy secretary Rick Perry will rejoin a dental insurance company as its vice chairman of the board of directors as well as its chief strategy officer. MCNA Dental announced the appointment in a Monday news release. Perry had previously served on the firm’s board of directors. In a statement, the company’s chief executive and president, Jeffrey Feingold, said Perry’s “tremendous diplomatic expertise and his experience spearheading Medicaid reform in Texas will enhance the capabilities of our leadership team.”
— There's flooding along the Mississippi River: A lot of the southern stretches of the Mississippi River and its offshoots are flooding, forcing evacuations and inundating homes and businesses. The flooding around Jackson, Miss. has been particularly notable, The Post’s Matthew Cappucci reports. Already, hundreds of homes have been damaged, and authorities have conducted more than a dozen water rescues.
- The details: “The Pearl River, which passes about 50 miles east of the Mississippi, crested at 36.67 feet Monday, overflowing its banks in several parts of Jackson. Monday’s crest was the third-highest observed at the station, the highest crest being 43.28 feet on April 17, 1979. Data from the river gauge dates to the 1800s,” Cappucci adds.
- More rain is coming: “Unfortunately, more heavy rain is in the offing as an active weather pattern continues to dominate. Another one to two inches are possible through Thursday along the Interstate 20 corridor in Mississippi, Alabama and western Georgia — with higher amounts possibly falling in eastern areas.”
— New Greenpeace research says many plastics are not actually recyclable: The group conducted a survey of 367 recycling recovery facilities across the United States and found that “none could process coffee pods, fewer than 15% accepted plastic clamshells — such as those used to package fruit, salad or baked goods — and only a tiny percentage took plates, cups, bags and trays,” the Guardian reports.
- More details: Plastic products labeled #3 and #7 — “mixed plastics — are difficult for recyclers to process and repurpose, and many times sent to landfills.
- To quote: “This report shows that one of the best things to do to save recycling is to stop claiming that everything is recyclable,” said John Hocevar, director of Greenpeace’s Oceans Campaign. “We have to talk to companies about not producing so much throw-away plastic that ends up in the ocean or in incinerators.”
- The House Transportation Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment holds a hearing on Proposals for a Water Resources Development Act of 2020 on Feb. 27.