SALT LAKE CITY — A proposal that could ultimately shape the destiny of two national parks in Utah, the visitor experience for nearly 2 million people, and the $5.6 million livelihood of recreational guides is slated to be unveiled later this week.
The Bureau of Land Management's master leasing plan for the Moab area has been on the drafting table for three years and eagerly awaited by industry, government officials, environmental groups and recreationers.
"It is certainly something we are advocating and have been for some time," said David Nimkin, southwest regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association. "We see it as a reasonable, balanced approach to find solutions and answers to areas where energy development is appropriate and where protection of our public lands, particularly our national parks, is appropriate."
A range of development alternatives will be vetted at an open house Wednesday in Moab. Ultimately, a proposal will be settled on and put out in draft form this fall. The plan is one of 16 across the West that proposes finite zoning and land-use decisions for oil and gas development and, in the case of the Moab area, potash mining.
"The Moab plan is one of the first and certainly the most comprehensive in the country," Nimkin said. "It will certainly have an impact on the parks."
Potential oil and gas development near Utah's iconic national parks touched off a maelstrom of controversy in 2008, followed by sweeping reforms handed down by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
At the time, then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the Bush administration's "anywhere and anyhow" policy on oil and gas development needed a drastic overhaul to bring more certainty to the process and stem the onslaught of lawsuits brought by environmental groups.
The answer instituted in subsequent actions was the master leasing approach, which requires the Bureau of Land Management to implement landscape-scale planning for energy development in specific geographic areas.
"This is not about stopping oil and gas or locking up the land in wilderness," said Ashley Korenblat, a Moab mountain bike outfitter who has been actively involved in the public lands planning process in the region. "This is just zoning. It allows valid existing rights to be developed but also protects recreation assets that so much of the economy depends on."
But Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of governmental affairs for the Western Energy Alliance, said the BLM has devoted too much time to an effort that duplicates planning efforts already on the books.
"We find the master leasing plan redundant. BLM took five years and extensively studied land use in the Moab area when they conducted the Moab resource management plan finalized in 2008. Now they are going back to the drawing board and doing another round of analysis. It's just a constant cycle of analysis on top of analysis," Sgamma said.
The Moab area master leasing plan encompasses 946,469 areas, of which 83 percent is BLM land. It surrounds Moab and wraps around Arches National Park, with the Green River as its western boundary. Its northeastern boundary is Canyonlands National Park, while its eastern boundary is U.S. 191.
Over the years, the BLM Moab and Monticello field offices have received industry interest in an estimated 120,000 acres for potential oil and gas development, and 170 potash prospecting applications covering 350,000 acres.
At the same time, the area accommodates more than 1.6 million visitors a year to Canyonlands and Arches national parks and Dead Horse State Park. In 2011, the BLM noted, there were 126 commercial recreational outfitters with 47,300 customers who spent $5.6 million.
Korenblat pointed out that regulations have not kept pace with the fast-growing recreation industry.
"There is no such thing as the Recreation Asset Protection Act," she said. "There is really not an obligation for (the BLM) to check on recreation assets, and to me that is an example of how the recreation economy has grown faster than the regulations."
Korenblat added that the current system does not foster an appropriate level of preplanning for an area so rich in resources.
"A parcel-by-parcel approach just leaves you spot zoning. Nobody wants to go camping next to a drill pad," she said.
The master leasing process would allow the BLM to amend current land planning documents, called a resource management plan, and set restrictions in place at the outset. It does not interfere with existing mineral rights or impair the 29 existing gas and oil wells within the planning area.
Planning documents that chart the type of oil and gas development that could take place over the next 15 years note that there could be 128 new wells that have the potential to disturb 1,050 acres within the planning region. High-to-moderate development areas for potash envision as much as 2.4 million tons of potash that could be extracted in a year.
The BLM plans to release its range of possible resource extraction scenarios Wednesday prior to its open house from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the Grand Center, 182 N. 500 West, Moab. Those alternatives could be as expansive as an outright moratorium on any new industry activity or leave existing, available leases untouched.
Some groups are hopeful the leasing plan institutes an approach that settles some of the conflict and controversy that arise when a mix of interests compete for the same land — be it mineral extraction, fishing and hunting, or hiking and biking.
"Master lease plans, which can help minimize impacts and conflicts resulting from poorly planned oil and gas projects, will help balance energy development with the needs of fish and wildlife," said Ed Arnett, director of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership's Center for Responsible Energy Development. "That’s good for a range of stakeholders, including business owners dependent on sportsmen who pursue their passions in areas with valuable habitat.”
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