MOAB, Utah, Feb. 5, 2002 - The Bush administration is opening the red
rock country near two of Utah's popular national parks to oil and gas
drilling, over the objections of some park rangers in the Southwest and
As part of the president's energy plan to expand development on federal
lands, 50,000-pound trucks have been pounding the ground between Arches
and Canyonlands National Parks, searching for oil with seismic measuring
instruments. At the same time, oil companies have bought leases to drill
on federal land outside Canyonlands park.
Administration officials say visitors to the parks will barely notice
the changes to the land, while national park scientists say the land could
take decades to recover from the shock waves of the industrial hammerings.
Oil derricks and drilling equipment have long been a feature on the
nation's public lands, with nearly 35 million acres open to development.
During the Clinton years, oil and gas leasing increased considerably over
previous administrations. But areas considered wilderness and areas near
national parks were usually off- limits.
The Bush administration has been pushing federal land managers to speed
up development, which includes work within two miles of national parks, as
is happening here. Federal land managers who control the scenic Utah lands
have been told that energy development is now the top concern.
``Utah needs to ensure that existing staff understand that when an oil
and gas lease parcel or when an application for permission to drill comes
in the door, that this work is their No.1 priority,'' Bureau of Land
Management supervisors wrote to field officers in a memorandum a month
This week, as President Bush unveiled his budget, Interior Secretary
Gale A. Norton requested new financing to streamline permits and study
sites to drill on federal lands. Ms. Norton said the new exploration could
be done with minimal environmental damage.
But national park officials say they are alarmed as the exploration
trucks and drilling equipment have come close to their borders. The parks
around this town, a mountain- biking mecca on the Colorado River, had huge
increases in visitors over the last decade.
To protect the sandstone spires and the living surface layer that
covers the red rocks of Utah's canyon country, the Bureau of Land
Management has repeatedly urged mountain bikers and off-road vehicle users
to tread lightly and stay on the main roads. At the same time, the bureau,
the nation's biggest land manager, has given the go-ahead for trucks to
crisscross thousands of acres of roadless desert soil, looking for oil.
Park officials said that drilling equipment near Canyonlands National
Park will mar the view, and that the tracks from exploration trucks could
lead to new off-road vehicle use in areas where officials are trying to
limit intrusion. Federal scientists expressed similar concerns about
exploratory ventures set to begin this month outside Arches National Park,
site of the signature Delicate Arch that adorns Utah license plates.
``Our concern is with visibility issues and road construction,'' said
Bruce Rodgers, the chief of resource management at Canyonlands National
Park. ``You would be able to see these roads, platforms and pumps from the
park. And the soil is quite fragile.''
The Bush administration is also preparing to sell new leases next month
around the San Rafael Swell, a curtain of rainbow-colored cliffs which
Gov. Michael O. Leavitt, a Republican, has proposed setting aside as a
Officials with the Bureau of Land Management, which controls one-
eighth of all the land in the United States and 22 million acres in Utah
alone, said that the oil development would be done in such a way to
minimize what recreational users see on the land and that the oil
companies would have to restore the land near the parks when the work was
``You won't see it looking like West Texas with oil pumps everywhere,''
said Bill Stringer, the deputy field manager of the bureau office here.
``The drilling will be spread out, and in some cases we'll get them to
turn the drills sideways so you can barely see them from the parks.''
The door to new drilling and exploration on public lands has opened
just as the price of energy and natural gas has plummeted. When the
president issued his energy plan a year ago, with increasing drilling on
public lands in the West and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as a
centerpiece, gas and oil prices were high. They are now at a level that
gives some companies little incentive to proceed beyond exploration.
``Last year everybody was geared up for a boom,'' said Neil Stanley, a
vice president of Forest Oil, which has numerous oil-drilling leases on
public land in the West. ``The old bumper sticker slogan - `Lord, please
give me one last boom and I won't let it get away' - that's how people
felt. But now, the prices are causing me to wonder what I'm doing.''
Officials at another oil company expressed surprise that the Bush
administration was selling leases in scenic areas so close to Canyonlands
``We're all just sort of shaking our head because this area is so
controversial,'' said Beth McBride, president of Legacy Oil, which owns a
lease that allows it to drill for oil in the Lockhart Basin next to
Canyonlands National Park. The area, which had been considered for
wilderness protection and part of an expanded national park, is habitat
for bighorn sheep and other rare species. Scientists say the animals
depend on the delicate soil for nutrients and water that comes from
springs on that land.
``Although the Clinton administration certainly wasn't shy about
issuing leases, they were much more careful to avoid scenic and unique
landscapes like southern Utah's,'' said Heidi McIntosh of the Southern
Utah Wilderness Alliance, an environmental group based in Salt Lake City.
Two months ago, environmental groups sued the federal government for
its lease sales near Arches National Park and nearly a dozen other areas
in the Rocky Mountain West.
Ms. McBride, whose company owns a lease to drill in the contested area
outside Canyonlands, agreed with parts of the lawsuit.
``I'm kind of with them,'' Ms. McBride said in an interview. ``They
shouldn't tell us we can come in and drill if they haven't cleared up all
the environmental issues.''
The park staff at Dead Horse Point State Park, a popular site between
Canyonlands National Park and Arches, urged the government to deny a
permit for oil companies to do seismic exploration in the area. These
exploratory probes are part of decades-old search for oil throughout the
interior West. The region is rich in natural gas, and there are oil
deposits of uncertain size.
A United States Geological Survey expert on soil damage, Dr. Jayne
Belnap, wrote bureau officials last year, warning of long-term damage from
new exploration near Canyonlands National Park. It could take up to 250
years for some of the dry soil around the park to recover from the heavy
exploration equipment, Dr. Belnap wrote in a memorandum.