ST. GEORGE – The Bureau of Land Management has extended the comment period for what has quickly become a controversial proposal to lease land located near Zion National Park for oil and gas development.
The possibility of oil and gas development near the park and at the site of a future reservoir near Anderson Junction is raising alarm among local residents and environmental advocates alike; even the Washington County Commission has expressed its disapproval.
The BLM announced the comment extension Tuesday, citing a request from the National Park Service and “interest from other parties.”
Public comments will now be accepted until March 9 – a month after the original Feb. 10 deadline.
Three parcels totaling 4,730 acres have been nominated for leasing in the county; two are within 1.5 miles of the border of Zion National Park, BLM spokesman Christian Venhuizen said, and near the town of Virgin.
The two parcels are located along and straddle Kolob Terrace Road, a popular scenic route which passes through Zion National Park and offers access to several popular attractions including the Subway, the Left Fork of North Creek and Lava Point.
“I don’t feel that it’s in the best interests of Washington County to … support these particular issues,” Washington County Commissioner Victor Iverson said at a regular commission meeting Tuesday.
Another parcel is located near Anderson Junction, the site of a planned reservoir, which raises concerns about water quality.
“There’s enough uncertainty with fracking and other things that I personally have grave reservations doing anything that would impair one of our really high-quality potable water sources,” Commissioner Dean Cox said.
The commission passed a resolution expressing active opposition to the proposed oil and gas leases.
Virgin resident George Walsh believes while oil and gas development in the area may have been appropriate in the past, it is not now. The number of visitors to Zion National Park was over 4 million last year, and many people visit or move to the area because of the beauty of the land, he said.
“Yes, obviously we need gas and oil exploration, drilling and production,” Walsh said. “But the big question is, ‘is it an appropriate site for that?'”
“Tourism is the No. 1 business in the area,” he added. “It doesn’t seem like it’s an appropriate thing based on those kind of realities.”
The leases are based on a resource management plan that hasn’t been updated since 1999, Walsh said, noting he would like to see the lease proposal postponed until a new resource management plan can be put in place.
Local conservation group Conserve Southwest Utah adamantly opposes the leases.
“The very idea of this operation is in direct conflict with the direction our county is heading,” Conserve Southwest Utah president Tom Butine wrote in a comment submitted to the BLM.
“Air quality, traffic congestion, and wilderness access will be stressed enough by our growth alone, even without oil and gas development,” Butine wrote.
In addition, the group expressed concerns about air quality, greenhouse gasses, degradation of recreational experience, contamination of the area’s limited water supply and the loss of tourism and outdoor recreation the leases could cause.
The National Parks Conservation Association and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance also oppose the leases and issued a joint statement in January.
If developed, the two parcels could easily be seen from Utah’s most popular national park and are “clearly not compatible with this world-renowned landscape,” the statement said.
A Change.org petition opposing the oil and gas leases states that industrial development is not appropriate for the area. The petition had garnered 3,277 signatures as of late Wednesday afternoon.
The potential leases raise concern about negative impacts on air, water and soil quality, night skies, view sheds, soundscapes, ecosystems, historical preservation, grazing rights and the recreation of hikers, campers, mountain biker and off-highway vehicle users, the petition states.
The lease parcels are in locations that would require restrictions due to the presence of wildlife habitat and cultural resource, St. George Field Office Manager Brian Tritle told the Washington County Commission in December.
If a proposed lease survives the initial environmental assessment and a lease was purchased, Tritle said, it would trigger a more in-depth National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, analysis and offer more opportunities for public comment.
“The public comment period will help us decide whether to offer the parcels for lease. Substantive public comments will help shape the decision, which is why we agree with the National Parks Service’s request to extend the public comment period until March 9,” Venhuizen said in an email.
Additional information about the proposed parcels is included in the environmental assessments and other documentation available for public review and comment and may be accessed as follows:
- Electronic copies can be found online; information and documentation on proposed leases can be found here: National Environmental Policy Act number DOI-BLM-UT-C030-2017-0010-EA .
- Hard copies of the environmental assessments can be obtained from the St. George Field Office, 345 E. Riverside Drive, St. George.
- The public review and comment period opened Jan. 10 and closes at 4:30 p.m. on March 9.
The most useful comments are those that identify issues relevant to the proposed action or contain new technical or scientific information, the BLM states in its notice. Comments that contain only opinions or preferences will not receive a formal response but may be considered in the BLM decision-making process.
Written comments may be mailed or emailed to:
Bureau of Land Management, St. George Field Office
345 East Riverside Drive
St. George, UT 84790
Attn: Dave Corry
Before including an address, phone number, email address, or other personal identifying information in any comments, be aware that the entire comment — including personal identifying information — may be made publicly available at any time. Requests to withhold personal identifying information from public review can be submitted but the BLM cannot guarantee that it will be able to do so.
For more information regarding the sale, contact Robin Naeve at 801-539-4039. Persons who use a telecommunications device for the deaf may call the Federal Information Relay Service at 800-877-8339 to leave a message or question for Naeve. The FIRS is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Replies are provided during normal business hours.
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