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Federal land managers Friday released a much-anticipated analysis of mineral lease options for lands around Moab.
The so-called "master leasing plan" is meant to guide oil and gas development near sensitive and scenic lands, including national parks, monuments and wilderness areas.
The preferred alternative from the Bureau of Land Management of Utah would close areas adjacent to Arches and Canyonlands national parks to leasing and block disturbance on larger regions popular with mountain bikers, hikers and tourists driving to scenic destinations. Drilling in the rest of the planning area would be subject to timing constraints and other limits.
The plan which covers 1 million acres of public land in east-central Utah is considered a bellwether for a new planning and permitting process, which grew out of controversial leases the BLM sold for the area in 2008 and later retracted after activist Tim DeChristopher monkey-wrenched a sale.
"Moab has some of the most iconic scenery on the Colorado Plateau, but it is also rich with energy resources, so we need to take a landscape-level approach to minimize potential resource conflicts," U.S. Interior Department Secretary Sally Jewell said in a prepared statement. "As the first master leasing plan of its kind, this collaborative planning process should serve as a model for how communities can work together to balance development with protecting world-class environmental and recreational resources."
The plan would not affect the 228,000 acres nearly a quarter of the planning area already under lease. The planning area includes inholdings totaling 161,000 acres of state trust, private and split-estate lands.
Under the preferred alternative, land managers estimate oil and gas would generate $365 million in economic impact and employ 171 during the 15-year life of the plan. Potash would generate another $669 million and employ 259. Recreation, meanwhile, would generate $761 million and support 1,086 jobs.
"Public lands support 47 percent of all our local jobs. We simply cannot take our public lands for granted," said Mary McGann, a Grand County Council member. "By implementing a smart-from-the-start plan, we can protect our parks and nearby public lands that drive our recreation economy, and ensure oil and gas drilling occurs responsibly and in the right places."
Also on Friday, the agency announced plans to initiate two other master plans: One for a 524,854-acre swath of the San Rafael Desert to the west of the Moab planning area. The other is a 320,000-acre chunk of the Cisco Desert to the east. The announcement brings the number of BLM master plans in the pipeline to 12 with five in Utah, including two for scenic areas in San Juan and Uintah counties.
The document unveiled Friday is a draft environmental impact statement, which is subject to a 90-day public comment period starting Aug. 21. It outlines four alternatives for the Moab area, ranging from an aggressive development scenario, allowed under Moab's 2008 resource management plan, to minimal development.
The BLM's preferred vision appears to strike a middle ground. It would bar leasing on 145,000 acres near parks and prohibit surface occupancy on another 306,000 acres. It also identifies 58,300 acres for potash leasing where oil and gas leasing would not happen.
The planning area includes many of the 77 controversial leases the BLM tried to sell in 2008 during the final weeks of the Bush administration. Climate activist DeChristopher ended up going to prison for buying some with phony bids. Then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar later invalidated the 77 leases after the Southern Utah Wilderness Association and The Wilderness Society argued the BLM had rushed them to the auction block.
The idea behind master leasing is to do careful analysis before leases are sold to industry, rather than after. That way, the approval process for actual drilling will be much smoother, proponents say.
Industry representatives, however, see master leasing as just another impediment to development.
"The process is completely redundant with the existing land-use planning process," said Kathleen Sgamma, policy director for the Western Energy Alliance. "It is another layer of analysis, so we don't support the reform."
Conservationists are far more enthusiastic.
"It is a long time coming for BLM to update how it manages oil and gas in the midst of this remarkable landscape," said Steve Bloch, SUWA's legal director. "It's a definite step in the right direction. If this plan were to proceed, we would see places like Six Shooter Peaks, Fisher Towers, Porcupine Rim protected from impacts of oil and gas leasing and development."
At the same time, the plans give oil and gas companies a degree of certainty because leases would not be as vulnerable to administrative protests and legal challenges.
"A little bit of effort at the front end of identifying where appropriate siting of development can be is a real bonus in the long run," said David Nimkin, southwest regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association. "It benefits industry because it gives them more security."