Those who were concerned about the prospect of oil and gas development sites just one and a half miles from Zion National Park can breathe a sigh of relief. At least, that is, for the time being. The plan to start oil and gas development in the area was proposed in December 2016 but has been deferred until further notice.
The original plan was to lease three different parcels of land in Washington County for developing. The total area of the land is 4,730 acres, which would make a big impact on the local area. Two of those parcels are located less than two miles away from Zion National Park and would have been right on Kolob Terrace Road, on of the most popular roads to use for Zion National Park entry.
There are many factors that may have played a role in getting the lease of land rights deferred. The Bureau of Land Management Public Affairs Specialist Ryan Sutherland released that the public and the government were mostly responsible stating: “After conducting environmental review and in response to substantial feedback from the public, local and state government, and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, BLM-Utah has deferred offering three Washington County parcels totaling 4,730 acres.”
The substantial feedback Sutherland is referring to includes over 40,000 public comments made on the environmental assessment from those worried about the impact on Zion National Park and the surrounding areas. As with any debate that pits the environment against potential economic growth, things became heated and controversial very quickly. Many people took the stance that the sight, sounds, and traffic from developing sites near the area would be enough to negatively impact the local economy.
Further proving that local concern for the environment was a major factor in the deferment, Sutherland went on to say that, “Due to the resource conflicts identified in the process of the environmental analysis along with the concerns raised by the public, the land use allocations in the current RMP should be reevaluated through the FLPMA (Federal Land Planning and Management Act) planning process which identifies land use allocation.” It was no surprise that the public would be vocal about the lease of land for gas and oil development, but the outcry was likely much louder than most had anticipated.
The reply was so profound when the original thirty-day public review was opened in December of 2016, the period for the public to comment on the review was extended for thirty more days. Many of the comments and concerns made were from county officials, residents, environmental conservationists, and park officials. All of these groups and more were concerned about the local resources and environment being affected by oil and gas development.
Even though the current plans have been deferred, they will still be considering ways to use the land. It is possible that the reallocations could include more actions to protect resources or, possibly, make the parcels unable to be leased. This development is important to the Bureau of Land Management and other parties, so it is unlikely that the attempt to develop the land in some way will be stopped.
While many are against oil and gas development on public lands, the BLM and others stand behind the decision. The development sites create important energy resources, provide jobs for many people, and stimulate growth in local communities. While these sites can do a lot of good for communities, BLM does agree that it will take more time to investigate the potential damages caused by the development of oil and gas sites.
While BLM does believe in the growth these sites bring, The Utah State Director for BLM, Edwin Roberson, said, “Based on the environmental review and recognizing the rapid growth of recreational visits and tourism on adjacent public lands, the BLM believes that deferring these parcels for further review is the right decision.”
The Superintendent of Zion National Park, Jeff Bradybaugh, took a stance on this hot issue when he asked BLM to delay their decision. There were three major concerns that led Bradybaugh to make this request. The first of his concerns was the visitor experience, fearing that the sites would negatively impact tourism in Zion National Park and surrounding areas. The next concern was how the local values would be impacted, such as land, property, and business values. Lastly, there is a big fear that local resources, like water and land, would be irreparably damaged by the gas and oil development. BLM agreed that these concerns were valid enough to halt their process while more research is done.
Conserve Southwest Utah, an environmental group based in southwestern Utah, vocally opposed the oil and gas development. Their main concerns were the preservation of air and water quality, increased traffic congestion in the area, restricted access to the wilderness and problems for wildlife, and the loss of tourism to the area.
The third parcel, which is further from Zion National Park, comes with its own issues and concerns. This parcel is located near a site that has been allotted for reservoir development. This reservoir would be a source of drinking water for many residents. The fear is, if the oil and gas development proceeds, that this reservoir could become contaminated, leaving the water useless for its original purpose.
As for when the development of these parcels will resume, it appears to be a waiting game. There will be more research on how these sites will affect the area and the BLM will proceed from there.