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After getting an earful from locals and state officials about possible drilling near Zion National Park, the Bureau of Land Management on Friday reversed course on proposed oil and gas leases on 4,730 acres in Washington County and will not offer them for sale at least for now.
At the last minute, Gov. Gary Herbert asked BLM state Director Ed Roberson to "protect these parcels, protect these public lands and not open them for leasing."
"While I support a diverse economy, these particular sites are not ideal for extraction," Herbert wrote in a May 30 letter, noting Zion has experienced three straight years of double-digit visitation growth. "Their economy is dependent upon recreation and tourism."
The BLM had previously announced the three parcels two of which straddle the Kolob Terrace Road on the park's western boundary would be available for bidding at the agency's June quarterly auction. Under pressure from the National Park Service and local elected officials, the BLM decided in March to re-evaluate leasing in a scenic area where no federal lands are currently under lease and no drilling has occurred in years.
"The BLM facilitates opportunities for development of energy infrastructure and commercial recreation on our public lands that create jobs and help local communities grow," Roberson said in a statement Friday. "At the same time, 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."
Roberson's decision adds the three parcels to a long list of sites that industry has "nominated" for leasing, but the BLM has "deferred" before making a final decision. The nomination requests may soon be re-evaluated under the Trump administration, which has prioritized energy development and pledged to lower hurdles to drilling and mining on public lands.
Conservationists applauded the withdrawal of the Zion leases.
"We are very pleased BLM listened to the National Park Service and the thousands who submitted comments from across the country," said Cory MacNulty of the National Parks Conservation Association. "The governor and resolutions from local communities show how important Zion is to our quality of life and ability to draw visitors."
MacNulty said the situation underscores the need for the BLM to update its 1999 St. George resource management plan, which no longer reflects conditions on the ground.
"Deferring the parcels is the right step, but there needs to be more work done," MacNulty cautioned.
Meanwhile, the BLM released an auction list of nine parcels covering 14,943 acres in Juab County. Industry may bid on them at the Sept. 14 auction, which is to be held entirely online.
The upcoming June 13 auction will feature 20 parcels covering 23,733 acres administered by the BLM's Richfield office. Environmental groups unsuccessfully appealed half those parcels, arguing they fall within priority habitat for greater sage grouse.
To protect the ground-nesting bird, the BLM had imposed "no surface occupancy" stipulations on these parcels, meaning that their minerals have to be tapped from horizontal wells drilled from neighboring lands. Accordingly, it dismissed the environmentalists' appeal, but the stipulations drew a protest from Utah, which argued that the restrictions put the minerals out of reach.
But state officials were not eager to see leasing just outside Zion, where public lands help support a thriving tourist economy.
"Visitors come from around the world to see the lush landscape surrounded by towering iconic sandstone cliffs. The preservation of this unique experience is important to surrounding communities," Herbert wrote in his letter, which marked a departure from a pro-energy approach more typical of Utah's elected leaders.
The Zion parcels, along with nine others that the BLM deferred, were nominated by St. George businessman Jeff Reber, who has said his company Utah Exploration and Drilling LLC is not interested developing the land for its oil and gas, but for water.
However, the area is close to groundwater sources Washington County taps for drinking water, according to concerns raised by the County Commission and the water district. The Springdale and Toquerville town councils and Washington County Commission, which commonly supports developing natural resources, passed resolutions opposing the leasing.
Two of the proposed leases are just north of Virgin on a road used by people visiting the northern highlands of Zion. State officials plan road improvements and recreational amenities along State Route 9 between Virgin and Springdale, at the park's southern entrance.
"If these leases move forward, it will create barriers to the development of much-needed infrastructure," Herbert wrote the BLM. "Current and future investors would be rightly concerned about a threat of industrial infrastructure that would diminish the value of [these recreational] ventures."