Try Googling “public lands in America.” You’ll find loads of maps covered in different colors outlining types of land – private, city, county, state and federal. The color representing public lands spans the country and absolutely covers the West, reminding residents that most of Utah is public, owned and managed by the federal government.
The care and responsibility of a lot of these lands fall under the direction of the Bureau of Land Management – nearly 300 million acres used for recreation, animal grazing and natural resources. These lands are often used to maneuver political and economic decisions, are the locations for environmental protests, and contain some of the countries most precious artifacts.
“The Bureau of Land Management is a multi-use agency," said Rachel Wootton, a BLM public affairs officer in Utah's BLM office. "What that means is that we manage for public needs, whether it’s people who are interested in recreation, whether it’s people who are interested in conservation or interested in energy development.”
She explains that the 1987 Federal Oil and Gas Onshore Mineral Leasing Act outlines which lands are available to be leased for oil exploration and drilling. The act allows the public to nominate parcels of land to be included in a public auction, but it's usually a representative of a company hoping to obtain a permit.
When an area is nominated, a resource management plan is created.
“When we’re developing our resource management plans, or other ways that kind of provide a framework for how we manage land," she said, "we use those plans when we are developing them. We talk to the public, we talk to interested stakeholders before we even make a determination about whether a site is going to be open for leasing and energy development.”
Included in these plans are opportunities for public comment and the BLM conducts an environmental analysis.
“Not only do we do analysis when we are first developing our resource management plan," Wootton said, "but even when we are doing an environmental analysis for a lease sale. We’re looking at the specific parcels, we’re seeing what the environmental concerns are going to be, whether it’s concerns brought to us by the public or through our analysis, we look at a lot of different things. You know, air quality, the impact to other natural resources.”
So with all these plans, stipulations and studies, why is there consistent backlash when the BLM organizes a leasing auction for oil and gas.
“You know, with EcoFlight, I fly all around the world, and recently mostly in the West, but there’s a preponderance of oil and gas exploration almost within 30 minutes of any place I fly going out of Colorado,”
This is Bruce Gordon - founder, president and pilot for EcoFlight, a Colorado-based organization that uses small aircrafts to educate and advocate protection for lands. He's concerned about the leasing auction happening on September 11. The BLM is scheduled to auction off 200,000 acres of Utah land for oil and gas exploration and drilling. Located in Emery and Wayne counties, some of the proposed parcels of land are within 1-2 miles of Canyonlands National Park and the Green River.
I attended an organized flyover with EcoFlight over the northwestern border of Canyonlands National Park. On an early Tuesday morning in August, we left Moab’s small airport to get a bird-eye view of the parcels of land the BLM will auction.
When I look out the right side of the plane, I see flat terrain crisscrossed with backcountry roads and on the left, I see the Green River and Horseshoe Canyon. We fly for about 30 minutes maneuvering in and out of the boundaries of Canyonlands.
“There’s no place like it and we set aside this area called Canyonlands National Park," Gordon said. "But these parks, when you set them aside, they can’t stand alone, you got to have buffer zones, you got to have areas which have limited development at best. However, the people at the Bureau of Land Management, the BLM, it’s their job, they're tasked with taking care of the public. These are public lands so how do you make a good combination of that? We need oil and gas. EcoFlight is not against oil and gas but we feel strong that it can and must be done properly. And there’s certain places it should not be done.”
And Gordon is not alone. Some public land supporters believe the auction taking place on September 11 should not happen, especially because of the location. Officials at EcoFlight say oil operations there would threaten Labyrinth Canyon, a popular place for family river trips, and Horseshoe Canyon, home to a well-known rock art panel called the Great Gallery.
“So one of the oil and gas leases that’s being put up by the BLM is right near there," said Brett Sutter, Moab resident and outdoor recreation company owner who joined the flyover, "And so that’s one of the concerns that Public Land Solutions and the environmental community has about that is that it’s so close to that amazing cultural treasure there that you’re going to see a big increase in truck traffic... and depending on where they ultimately get a well site there, there’s going to be obviously construction that’s going to have to occur there. And the concern is that it’s going to impact a lot of the visitors and the experience people have while out there.”
Reporter: So BLM land is often used to lease oil and gas so why are we concerned about this particular one?
“Here’s a way that it interrupts," Gordon said. "I mean, here are all these different roads that are going everywhere. Here’s an oil and gas pad and just at the beginning, you’ll start to see a number of them here. But there are areas that are really special and it’s one of the few places, and I fly all over the world, that is this kind of special – Canyonlands and the park designation.”
As we land, Gordon expresses frustration with the current administration’s energy dominance agenda. He says everything that has to do with the environment is rushed through the approval process without enough time for public input and scientific analysis.
To better understand how the leasing process of public lands for energy exploration and development works, I spoke with Kent Hoffman, Utah’s deputy state director for BLM lands and minerals. I asked him why the agency decided to include these parcels in the auction.
“Because of the analysis that we’ve done that we believe that there is sufficient environmental protection requirements that are in the lease terms themselves and will be eventually in the conditions of approval if and when an application for a permit to drill is ever received," he said. "We believe that we are able to address the concerns to the point where they are minimally impactful.”
The land up for lease will primarily be exploratory; meaning companies who win the bid are approved to only drill to see if there is any oil in the land worth drilling- and even then, the economy and demands for the product could push the exploration project off for years, or even forever.
If and/or when oil is discovered and the actual extraction begins, Hoffman says the area of land occupied by companies will be much smaller than the exploration area.
“Some of the concerns we dealt with specifically in this September case was noise and light pollution, water impacts, air impacts," he said. "One of the issues was tourism. Just the visual thing [that people] would like to see an unblemished landscape.”
When evaluating whether or not to lease public lands for exploration, Hoffman says the agency also has to consider energy companies as part of the public process.
“So that really is the fundamental, basic core of the Bureau of Land Management is multiple use and sustained yield,” he said.
When oil is discovered and drilling begins, the royalties each company pays is 12.5 percent of its profit, half going to the state and half to the federal government, amounting to almost a $1 billion each year.
Support for Loving Our Lands To Death is made possible in part by the USU Quinney College of Natural Resources, where students and faculty promote the sustainability of ecosystems and the communities that depend on them. Information can be found here.