The Bureau of Land Management announced February 24 that it would remove two parcels of land within the Sand Flats Special Recreation Area near Moab, Utah, from an upcoming oil and gas lease sale. The plan would have allowed exploratory drilling under the Slickrock Trail, one of the world’s most popular mountain biking destinations. While the move is a victory for local political leaders and conservation groups, others argue that places like Slickrock should never have been vulnerable to damaging resource extraction to begin with.
These were considered low value leases (similar parcels were purchased at just $1.50 per acre) in a region where a growing segment of the economy relies on recreation and tourism. Sand Flats gets over 160,000 visitors a year, and, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, Moab’s Grand County received $5.1 million from tourist accommodation taxes in 2018. The BLM seems to have taken that into consideration.
“Recreation access is a priority of ours—as well as responsible energy development—and both provide important economic benefits to Utah,” BLM acting Canyon Country District Manager Brian Quigley said in Friday’s news release.
Local officials opposed to the lease sale praised the agency’s announcement. “Let’s celebrate this decision because they are listening,” Moab mayor Emily Niehaus, who was outspoken against the proposal, told the Salt Lake Tribune. Niehaus had asked the state government to intervene on behalf of Slickrock, and local government.
Utah Governor Gary Herbert weighed in on the issue days before the BLM reversed course. A spokesperson for his office said, “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.”
“I am deeply grateful to our governor.” Niehaus said. “The state of Utah is doing a good job of balancing the economic implications of our public lands. This move says to me we have a partner in the governor’s office. We have a partner in the BLM. We are moving forward.”
The Outdoor Alliance, a public lands advocacy group, also spoke out against the proposed lease. Before the official public comment period for the proposed lease sale even began, the nonprofit and its supporters sent nearly 2,000 emails to BLM officials in opposition to the move within a day of the agency’s decision to withdraw the two parcels.
The organization then used news of the reversal to sound a warning about the Trump Administration’s “American energy dominance plan” that prioritizes resource extraction on public lands. “It’s tempting to say that the public spoke up, the agency listened, and the system worked, but that would not be an accurate telling.” Instead, according to the Outdoor Alliance, “this illustrates…what ‘energy dominance’ run amok looks like.”
In this situation, where there was an economic argument to be made for the recreational value, it wasn’t hard to get local politicians to speak up. That’s not always the case. For instance, the BLM is finalizing a plan to open the ecologically significant Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas leases. Earlier this month the agency issued a final management plan for the reduced Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments that could open the door for logging and mining in the area, despite an ongoing legal battle over the status of those two areas. The Slickrock reversal is good news for bikers, conservationists, and economies dependent on the outdoor industry, but it’s certainly not a bellwether for all public lands.