BOBBY MAGILL

Journalist • Photographer

Bobby Magill is a senior science writer for Climate Central in New York and a journalist who has covered fracking and the environment in Colorado and New Mexico since 2001. 

Endangered Parklands: A flash back to 2006

After the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 was signed by President Barack Obama on Monday, declaring parts of Rocky Mountain, Zion and Joshua Tree national parks as wilderness, I couldn't help but think back to some reporting I did for the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel in 2006 about our national parks. An only slightly revised version of the story below was printed in the Sentinel over the Christmas holidays that year. I hope things are changing for the better in our national parks very quickly.

Conservation and Consumption Clash Near Eastern Utah’s Most Famous National Parks

By Bobby Magill, Sentinel Staff

DOME PLATEAU, Utah —  “Caution: Poison Gas Area — Hydrogen Sulfide,” read the yellow breadboard sign at the entrance to natural gas well pad “Paradox Basin #1”, only a few miles east of Arches National Park.

The industrial roar of a lone towering natural gas drilling rig clashed with the mid-November silence and serenity of the surrounding ancient juniper forest and pink Entrada sandstone. The rig was set below the surrounding landscape at the end of a newly-bladed dirt road, every mile decorated here and there with beer cans, soda bottles and a headache of mud.

Exposure to high levels of hydrogen sulfide, a gas produced by kerogen deep within the earth, can cause immediate death.

Up a hill from the rig, ancient cryptobiotic or biological soil crust — many call it “crypto,” the erosion-resistant lifeblood of the desert — spreads across the landscape beneath the blackbrush, each mottled mat of crust blooming with lichen and bright green moss, signs that this remote region of the Dome Plateau has been left completely undisturbed for centuries, maybe millennia.

One off-road drive over the crypto, said Sue Phillips, a Moab-based U.S. Geological Survey biologist, and it could take centuries for it to return to its former biologically diverse, mossy state.

After an hour negotiating the muddy road in a Jeep, Liz Thomas tried to hail a drill rig worker to inquire about the rig’s progress. No luck.

“This kind of epitomizes wilderness,” said Thomas, Moab representative of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, a group fiercely advocating for the permanent protection of much of Utah’s redrock canyon country. “It was really sad to come here to see what they’d done with a bulldozer and a blade.”

Thomas peered over the drilling rig and balanced herself on a narrow rim of sandstone to prevent trampling and killing the fragile crypto.

“It makes me sad,” she said. “It just isn’t a good place for this kind of development.”

Drilling an exploratory natural gas well on state-owned land for Perth, Australia-based Golden State Resources, the rig is set beneath a landscape that’s part of the breathtaking views that tourists from all over the world come to Arches to see.

At any grand vista in either Arches or Canyonlands national parks, most of your view won’t be of the park itself. You’ll see land owned mostly by the BLM, state and Forest Service that’s indistinguishable from land within the park.

The Golden State gas well being drilled only about seven miles from Delicate Arch may represent the first sign of a clash pitting protection of landscapes intrinsic to the beauty of Utah’s parklands against energy development as part of a boom that could one day surround Arches and Canyonlands national parks.

“Do you want cheap fuel, or do you want to protect your parks?” said Lynn Jackson, associate field manager for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Moab office. “It’s a societal question that needs to be answered. Sometimes the two tend to clash.”

And clash they do.

Arches and Canyonlands national parks exist in a region known for its rich mineral deposits, particularly uranium, and the impact of extracting them can be seen near both parks.

Though Jackson said Phillips’ Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, or SUWA, is an “extreme environmental organization” given to alarmism, Phillips said alarm is necessary: Energy development is coming to this wild region, and it could be coming quite quickly.

A report on Golden State’s Web site says the company’s drilling project near Arches in Utah’s Paradox Basin is in an area where energy companies estimate 1 billion barrels of oil and 6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas hide beneath the surface.

The gas reserves near Arches are “mind blowing,” declares the report, potentially producing a cash flow for Golden State upwards of $4.8 billion.

Currently, there are 69 authorized oil and gas leases within about 25 miles of the boundaries of Arches National Park, and 107 around Canyonlands, said Terry Catlin, leader of the BLM’s Utah oil and gas leasing program.

BLM records show that at least 26,000 acres are now under lease within about 10 miles of Arches’ northern and eastern boundaries.

The Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining has approved 9 applications for a permit to drill this year within about 10 miles of the boundaries of Arches and Canyonlands. At least two more are pending.

Last year, the BLM authorized a lease three miles north of the park boundary and four miles due north of Delicate Arch, a lease expiring in 2010 owned by Cabot Oil and Gas of Houston.

Cabot owns nine of the leases closest to Arches, which are on over 14,500 acres of BLM land within less than 10 miles of the park boundary.

John Muire, Cabot land manager in Denver, said the company has no immediate plans to develop those leases, and has yet to drill any wells in the area. “That’s not to say that we will not,” he said.

Standing on the mesa rim at Dead Horse Point State Park, Thomas looked west over Canyonlands and south toward the Needles Overlook, with a view of a maze of canyons more than 2,000 feet below and miles in the distance.

She pointed across the Colorado River.

Land on the roads to the Anticline and Needles overlooks. Leased. Lockhart Basin. Leased. Hatch Point. Leased.

Behind-the-Rocks. Leased.

Though Jackson said wells in those areas will be set back so they won’t affect the view from Canyonlands, bright lights and other pollution from energy development up there, Thomas said, means an end to the tremendous darkness and silence you can experience in the depths of Canyonlands’ most remote quarters.

“You can’t put flyers in the park that say that,” Thomas said. “Would the American people want that? No. It’s just wrong. If you can’t stop the leases, you can’t stop the oil field.”

Jackson dismissed such claims.

“I don’t know what light pollution is,” he said. “On a cloudy, foggy night, I can see the lights of Grand Junction from there.”

Wells set back a quarter mile from the mesa rim, he said, won’t impact Canyonlands’ dark skies a bit.

A ridge visible directly through Delicate Arch is available for oil and gas leasing, though Jackson said the BLM can prevent such areas from being leased if they prove to have a visual impact on the park.

“If the American public knew the places that are being drilled for a small company’s profit, would they want this to happen?” Thomas said. “I suspect not. You can’t take away this development. ... The toxic chemicals in the ground will always be there.”

Arches Superintendent Laura Joss took issue with leasing one BLM parcel near the park. In an August letter she sent to the BLM, she said she was afraid pollution from drilling on the parcel could taint the water quality in the Colorado River at the edge of the park.

Air quality at Canyonlands National Park is degrading, partially because of nearby oil and gas development, but also because of auto emissions and power plants in the region, said John Bunyak, chief of policy, planning and permit review for the National Park Service’s Air Resource Division in Denver.

Oil and gas development adjacent to Arches and Canyonlands will only make air quality there worse, he said, and the air is already polluted enough.

Ozone is on the rise in Canyonlands’ air, as well as ammonium, sulfates and nitrates in precipitation, according to an agency study investigating air quality trends at parks nationwide from 1995 to 2004. Energy development, Bunyak said, can emit each of those compounds into the park’s air, harming its ecological health and potentially reducing visibility.

“When a person goes to a national park, he expects to experience good visibility and clean air,” Bunyak said. “He doesn’t want to be subject to an ozone health advisory.”

But the two parks, if not yet their visitors, are subject to plenty of industrial influence.

Intrepid Mining operates a potash mine near Canyonlands, and the company hopes to build a pipeline to the mine from its oil wells on the mesa north of Canyonlands. If it’s built, the pipeline would run over the mesa rim near Dead Horse Point State Park to the mine 2,000 feet below.

Just upstream, the U.S. Department of Energy is hauling away more than 11 million tons of uranium mine tailings that sit in a pile on the river less than a mile from Arches’ southern boundary.

And then there’s the tar sands.

The BLM is working on an environmental review of the impacts of exploiting tar sands and oil shale throughout Utah, heeding a congressional mandate in the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

One of Utah’s more than 13 deposits of tar sands — together harboring an estimated 12 to 20 million barrels of oil — lingers untapped around the Orange Cliffs adjacent to Canyonlands’ remote Maze District in the “Triangle Reserve,” a wedge of energy-rich redrock canyon country partially within Glen Canyon National Recreation Area north of the confluence of the Dirty Devil and Colorado Rivers.

Though the tar sands are open for the taking by nearly any energy company that can get a lease, if, and when, the tar sands will be developed is anybody’s guess.

“We’ve had the ability to lease those tar sands through combined hydrocarbon leases since the early 80s, and no one has pursued those leases,” BLM’s Utah Solid Minerals Branch Chief Jim Kohler said.

Extracting tar sands from the area would be serious business, he said, because they’re not nearly as easy to get to as tar sands in Canada.

One method, he said, would involve a “fire flood.” An energy company could drill a well, light the rock formation afire, melt the tar sands, and pump out the oil.

While energy reserves and the fervor with which the BLM is leasing those reserves might imply a tension between the agency and the national parks, National Park Service officials say otherwise: There is no great tug-of-war between park protection and energy development, they say.

“Parks are sometimes criticized for trying to influence things outside park boundaries,” said Canyonlands Superintendent Kate Cannon. “I do not look at it that way. I believe that all land management agencies here are concerned, as they should be, about the landscape as a whole and what we have to manage effectively. Parks are tiny pieces, like islands in an ocean.”

But it’s the whole ocean that’s important, she said.

“Visitors come here not just because there are parks here, but because there’s a magnificent larger landscape here. All the land managers here place a high priority on protecting the landscape.

And I think that causes us to be thoughtful about where and how we develop.”

The fervor over energy development surrounding Arches and Canyonlands may be a bit unnecessary even though if all the leases surrounding the parks are developed, it could profoundly alter the landscape.

Many more leases are sold than there are applications for permits to drill, she said. And of the wells that are drilled only a small fraction go to production.

“They’ve been poking holes in this basin for a long time,” said Paul Henderson, spokesman for both Arches and Canyonlands national parks. Wells near the parks “tend to be really short lived.”

Cannon said she believes the measures the BLM uses to prevent Canyonlands from being impacted by potential tar sands development nearby are adequate.

The BLM is sensitive to energy development’s potential impacts to Canyonlands and Arches, Jackson said, but the BLM and park officials sometimes disagree about the acceptable distance for energy development from the parks.

“They think seven miles out, we think four miles out,” Jackson said. “We think things four miles out tend to blend in with the terrain, unless it’s a huge structure painted a very reflective color. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, anything four miles out is not visible.”

Arches Superintendent Joss agrees, at least about the placement of Golden State’s Paradox well.

“They placed it quite well,” she said. “They placed it within the topography so visitors can’t see it from the park.”

Unless, Thomas said, visitors are at Delicate Arch at night, when she suspects the lights from the drill rig can be seen from one of the park’s main attractions.

But while Arches has a good working relationship with the BLM, Golden State’s well is on state land, so “all we could do in this case is monitor and express visibility concerns,” Joss said.

On federal land, however, the BLM now may have to look a little harder before it leases wilderness-quality lands.

Though some BLM employees consider SUWA an extremist group for advocating against drilling in many parts of the canyon country, Utah U.S. District Court Judge Dale Kimball didn’t think so in August when he ruled in favor of SUWA and the Wilderness Society in a case the groups brought against the BLM claiming that the agency had illegally leased wilderness-quality lands elsewhere in southern Utah.

Kimball ruled that the BLM had violated the National Environmental Policy Act because it failed to consider not leasing some parcels in areas the agency had previously considered wilderness quality, and ignored new information concerning other parcels’ wilderness character.

The bottom line for oil and gas leasing on the wildest lands around Arches and Canyonlands, said Wilderness Society Regional Director Suzanne Jones, is that the BLM must follow Kimball’s ruling when leasing time comes around.

That could prevent a clash between energy development and, at least, the incredible vistas found at the parks.

“The concern is, you’re standing there at Delicate Arch at the amazing redrock vista, looking at pumpjacks in the distance,” Jones said. “These are world-class landscapes people travel from all over the world to come see them, and people don’t come to look at the oil and gas fields. The scenery doesn’t end at the park boundary.”