ST. GEORGE – Zion National Park is weighing in on a proposal to lease land located near the park for oil and gas development. More than 40,000 comments have been submitted to the Bureau of Land Management on an initial environmental assessment.
Zion Park superintendent Jeff Bradybaugh is asking the BLM to defer a decision on two parcels pending further discussion of how to protect resources, visitor experience and community values on BLM lands surrounding the park.
Three parcels totaling 4,730 acres have been nominated for oil and gas leases in the county, two of which are within 1.5 miles of the border of Zion National Park and span Kolob Terrace Road, a popular access road to the central portions of the park.
The possibility of oil and gas development near the park and at the site of a future reservoir near Anderson Junction is raising concern among residents, environmental advocates and the Washington County Commission.
In a letter to BLM St. George Field Office Manager Brian Tritle dated March 7, Bradybaugh expressed concerns about the potential impacts of oil and gas operations.
Park officials are concerned about impacts to scenery and visitors’ experience along Kolob Terrace Road along with air quality, soundscapes and dark skies within the park.
“The drive up the Kolob Terrace Road is one of the most spectacular in Utah,” Bradybaugh said in the letter.
“We are concerned that access roads, drilling pads, drill rigs and production facilities would detract from this scenic view, visitor auto touring and backcountry experience,” he said.
Water quality and the safety of the protected Virgin spinedace in nearby North Creek, a tributary of the Virgin River are also of concern to park officials.
Before any leases are granted in the area, Bradybaugh wants discussion of whether the 1999 resource management plan for Washington County is still appropriate in 2017, especially relating to which areas are open for oil and gas leasing.
When the plan was developed 18 years ago, Washington County population was just over 90,000, and Zion Park had 2.4 million annual visitors. By 2015, there were 155,000 people in the county and park visitation had risen to 4.3 million, Bradybaugh said.
Nonlocal visitors to Zion are estimated to bring more than $270 million and 2,700 jobs to the local economy, Bradybaugh said.
The increase in visitation and use has increased the value of the open space – oil and gas operations may no longer be the best use of public lands along the gateway to Zion National Park.
In addition, hydraulic fracking was relatively uncommon in 1999 when the resource plan was completed; fracking is not adequately addressed in the BLM’s environmental assessment, Bradybaugh said.
“To clarify, we are requesting that these parcels be deferred from leasing consideration in order to work in cooperation with BLM, local communities and state and county governments to address the most appropriated management of mineral resources and applicable requirements in order to protect visitor experience and important resources and community values on BLM SGFO (St. George Field Office) lands surrounding Zion National Park,” Bradybaugh said.
The comment period for the draft environmental assessment was extended from the original Feb. 10 deadline to March 9. The BLM received more than 40,000 comments on the matter, BLM Color Country District spokesman Christian Venhuizen said.
“We appreciate the interest shown and the discussion it generated,” Venhuizen said.
The BLM is beginning the comment review process, which will help staff complete the environmental assessment and determine if the parcels will be offered at the lease sale.
All 40,000 comments will be read to identify relevant issues or new technical or scientific information, Venhuizen said.
“The BLM remains resolute to manage responsible oil and gas development on Utah’s public lands,” Venhuizen said.
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