Open Season on Open Space

The Bush administration has made energy development on public lands its priority number one. The wild West will never be the same.

Photo: Bob Burtman

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The view from dead horse point reveals a sweeping panorama of red sandstone buttes, sheer cliffs, and deep gorges carved into shapes at once familiar and grotesque. Located 32 miles from the Utah desert town of Moab, the narrow rock peninsula juts jaggedly into canyon country, 2,000 feet above the Colorado River. The vista draws more than 250,000 visitors to the state park at Dead Horse each year, and the unspoiled landscape has been featured prominently in movies like Thelma and Louise and Mission: Impossible 2. Modest by the standards of two nearby national parks, the vast Arches and Canyonlands, Dead Horse makes up in grandeur what it lacks in size. “It’s amazing,” says ranger Dan Dranginis. “I probably have the best backyard of anybody.


The dramatic red-rock formations of southern Utah may be unique, but the same can not be said for the fight over plans to open the area to energy exploration and production. From the high alpine valleys of Montana to the border grasslands of New Mexico, the energy rush is on. We review how the Bush administration’s plans for accelerating energy production in the west is threatening ten wilderness areas.

Ten Regions at Risk


Though it took 300 million years to create, the wilderness around Dead Horse Point could change in short order. A Denver-based company called Intrepid Oil and Gas has filed plans to drill two wells on park grounds, including one right next to the visitors center. Another firm, Aviara Energy, has permits for three wells on 23,000 acres of high desert between the park and nearby Canyonlands. Other oil companies have received leases in the neighboring Lockhart Basin and the sprawling Dome Plateau near Arches, both of which have been proposed as national wilderness areas. “Pretty much wherever people hike, they’re going to see oil wells,” says Dranginis.

Even before the Senate blocked proposals to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in April, the Bush administration was moving to accelerate energy production across the West — often targeting highly sensitive areas that have remained largely closed to exploration and drilling. In Utah, the proposed drilling would do more than spoil scenic views — it also threatens crucial habitat for desert bighorn sheep and cougars, as well as eagles and other raptors. Last September, the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which controls mineral rights on much of the public land in the region, allowed 52,000-pound “thumper” trucks to pound the ground near Dead Horse Point and Canyonlands, searching for oil with seismic measuring equipment. The trucks crushed ancient stands of juniper, left fragile desert soil vulnerable to erosion, and cut 176 miles of new roads. In February, a federal review board halted similar exploration in the Dome Plateau, saying the BLM had failed to conduct environmental reviews mandated by federal law.

“With oil and gas development you get roads, you get drill pads, you get trucks driving out there, you get air and water pollution,” says Pamela Eaton, who directs the Four Corners office of the Wilderness Society, a research and advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. “It will harm the soil, fragment wildlife habitat, damage plants, and erode the land.”

Four months after former oil executives George W. Bush and Dick Cheney took office, the administration issued an executive order calling on all federal agencies to “expedite energy-related projects.” Since then, officials have been speeding approval of oil and gas wells throughout the Rocky Mountain states. In Colorado, the BLM is revising land-use plans on 77,000 undeveloped acres in Vermillion Basin, the first step before drilling can be approved on land the agency previously recommended for wilderness status. In New Mexico, similar revisions could open up 160,000 acres of grasslands in the Otero Mesa region, threatening the habitat of pronghorn antelope, falcons, hawks, and bobcats. And in Wyoming and Montana, the administration supports plans to develop 51,000 wells to extract methane gas from shallow coal beds in the Powder River Basin — a process that even the BLM’s own studies conclude could poison wildlife, kill vegetation, and crisscross the area with 20,000 miles of pipeline, 5,300 miles of power lines, and 17,000 miles of roads.

“The president, vice president, and their corporate friends are trying to drill into everything,” says Ken Sleight, a longtime environmental activist who runs a guest ranch in the foothills of the snow-capped La Sal Mountains outside Moab. “They don’t care about the value of wildlands. Bush has zeroed in on southern Utah, but he has no idea what he will destroy.”

The drilling proposals have sparked opposition not only from environmentalists, but also from some cattle ranchers and most of the nation’s major hunting and sports-fishing organizations. Yet the administration remains undeterred, claiming that increased exploration on public lands is essential to curb dependence on foreign oil. “The additional reserves we have domestically could help bolster America’s energy security,” says BLM spokesman Rem Hawes. To make sure energy development gets the green light, the newly created White House Task Force on Energy Project Streamlining is removing environmental protections that industry considers a roadblock to domestic production. And in January, the BLM issued an internal memo to its Utah field offices making clear that energy, not the environment, is now the top concern for federal land managers. “Utah needs to ensure that existing staff understand that when an oil and gas lease parcel or when an application for permission to drill comes in the door, that this work is their No. 1 priority,” the memo concluded.

If he’s under pressure to approve every energy proposal that comes his way, Bill Stringer shows no sign of it. Relaxed and rugged in his polo shirt and faded jeans, Stringer looks like he prefers a day on the range to eight hours at his desk. The assistant field manager for resources in BLM’s Moab office, Stringer handles all issues related to energy production, including exploration permits, drilling applications, and wilderness designations. Like many federal officials, he shrugs off the heated debate surrounding the push to open up areas previously considered off-limits to energy exploration. “Moab has been at the center of controversy for a long time,” he says. “It’s not new.”

What is new is the kind of public lands that the Bush administration wants to see populated with oil rigs. The proposed drilling around Moab would take place within view of Arches and Canyonlands, two national parks that encompass some of the West’s most spectacular landscapes. Edward Abbey, who worked as a park ranger in Arches during the 1950s, began his classic Desert Solitaire by declaring, “This is the most beautiful place on Earth.” The park is home to scores of unique sandstone monoliths, including the graceful Delicate Arch that is featured on Utah’s license plate. The surrounding canyons, immense and arid, left Abbey “gaping at this monstrous and inhuman spectacle of rock and cloud and sky and space.”

Many of the areas targeted for drilling, including the Dome Plateau and Lockhart Basin, were considered off-limits to development by the Clinton administration, which launched studies to determine whether the land should be designated as federally protected wilderness areas. But under Bush, the BLM is speeding up such reviews, and then often recommending that the land be opened to drilling. According to Heidi McIntosh, conservation director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the agency’s recent verdicts have been distressingly consistent: “The BLM always says, ‘Nope, no wilderness qualities here.'”

In other areas, the agency is simply ignoring provisions designed to protect the environment. In May 2001, Cheney’s energy task force directed officials to review any “impediments” to oil and gas drilling and to “modify those where opportunities exist.” On many federal lands, one such “impediment” stipulates that drilling must be halted during periods of wildlife migration. But last year the BLM proposed waiving the restriction in the Upper Green River Basin in Wyoming, allowing one gas company to drill during the winter even though the work threatened to disrupt the migration of one of the world’s largest populations of pronghorn antelope and mule deer. In proposing the waiver, the agency suggested that it would actually benefit wildlife: By interrupting migration, drilling would enable scientists to study the effects of habitat disruption on the deer.

The BLM is also heeding the president’s order to “streamline” the process for drilling permits. The agency has informed Congress that it plans to process 4,100 drilling permits nationwide this year — up from 2,600 last year. The administration has also budgeted an additional $22 million this year to hire more permitting staff, increase the number of oil and gas wells, and revise existing land-use plans to clear the way for drilling.

Nowhere is the Western energy boom more pronounced — or the environmental damage more evident — than in the Powder River Basin, which spans 8 million acres of Montana and Wyoming. Since Bush took office, nearly 5,400 wells have already been drilled to extract methane gas from coal seams, and the administration wants to increase the number fivefold, transforming the area into what it calls “the major natural gas-producing region in the United States by 2015.” But releasing the trapped gas also involves pumping up an estimated 1.4 trillion gallons of water laden with salt and minerals, a process that already has drained local wells, flooded farms and ranches, and covered the arid land with waste lagoons. In many areas, drill pads will be located every 80 acres, each with diesel-powered compressors running day and night and a maze of access roads for heavy machinery.

“We’re going to be witnessing massive environmental degradation,” says David Alberswerth, the Wilderness Society’s director of BLM programs. In April, a federal review board ruled that federal officials failed to adequately consider the environmental consequences when issuing leases for drilling in the basin.

When officials do try to protect the environment — by denying drilling permits, closing roads, or designating historic trails — they find themselves under fire from Washington. In a December 12 memo, the Interior Department ordered BLM personnel to justify their actions in writing whenever their decisions have “a direct or adverse impact on energy development, production, supply and/or distribution.” In some cases, the White House has stepped in to make sure industry gets what it wants. After Texaco waited five months for permission to drill near a historic trail in Lincoln County, Wyoming, the Petroleum Association of Wyoming lodged a complaint with the White House energy streamlining task force last October. Approval was quickly granted, and a BLM directive that barred drilling near other national historic trails in Wyoming was also withdrawn.

Take a trip into the desert around Moab these days, and the biggest oil rigs you’re likely to see are SUVS. The town is a recreation mecca that takes in $100 million a year from tourists eager to experience the area’s desolate beauty. Mountain-bike and river-rafting outfitters line Moab’s one main drag, sharing space with motels and souvenir shops. Following old drilling roads — and often going off-road — hundreds of four-wheel- drive vehicles roam the territory each day, kicking up dust clouds visible from park overlooks. In March, an estimated 6,000 of them descended on Moab during the annual Jeep Safari weekend, tearing fresh ruts in the desert soil and turning sandstone ledges to dust.

But beyond the town, much of this vast red-rock canyon country remains as unspoiled as it was decades ago, often accessible only on foot or horseback. Many in Moab who depend on tourism for their livelihood worry about the prospects of oil wells dotting their routes, especially in areas that have remained off-limits to energy exploration. “It’s disturbing from a business standpoint, because people come to get away from that,” says Judy Nichols, who offers tours to mountain bikers. “I don’t know that my customers would still want a tour through Lockhart Basin if they’re going to see heavy machinery.” Nichols favors restrictions on drilling — even if it means closing some land to the four-wheel-drive vehicles that accompany her tours. “That’s fine with me,” she says.

Even some ranchers and others in the area who traditionally clash with environmentalists over issues of land use and growth are concerned about the Bush administration’s push to pave the way for drilling. “This county is not all environmentalist, to say the least,” says Susie Harrington, who lives in Moab and serves on the Grand county planning commission. “But it’s a point of agreement that the quality of the open space is important. It’s the general impression that degrading our open space is going to affect tourism.”

Some in southern Utah have already gotten a glimpse of how much damage oil wells can do. In neighboring counties, hundreds of wells have been drilled on Navajo land, raising concerns about pollution. “They’ve cut roads into the reservation, disrupted people’s lives, and left them worried about water quality,” says Mark Maryboy, a San Juan County commissioner and member of the Navajo Tribal Council. “The people who are trying to sell us another oil and gas boom don’t look down the road.”

In Emery County to the west, dozens of gas wells have sprouted since Bush took office. “It looks like Texas,” says Tom Bunn, whose ranch is located a few miles from Convulsion Canyon, where Native Americans covered cliff walls with pictographs depicting bighorn sheep and the night sky. Under the new administration, the U.S. Forest Service is developing plans to destroy the rock art to make way for a coal-mining road through the canyon. “I asked the Forest Service what would be left in 15 to 20 years after the coal is all played out and the canyon is beaten up,” says Bunn. “They said the new road could be used for recreation. That’s a new one: You mine for coal, and you end up with hikers.”

The canyons and mesas surrounding Moab experienced an energy boom once before. In the years after World War II, prospectors went looking for oil across southeastern Utah, hoping for a gusher. Most of the wells went bust, producing fewer than 60,000 barrels, and dozens of small vertical pipes are still visible from the road leading to Dead Horse Point, a silent testament to all the dry holes the drill bits found. In the surrounding desert known as Big Flat, only five wells are still pumping. Intrepid’s Long Canyon #1 stands at the end of a dirt road near the lip of the canyon, the pump jack noisily bobbing and grinding 24 hours a day.

Just how much oil could be recovered in the area remains a matter of speculation. The industry insists that companies won’t drill unless they’re certain to hit pay dirt. “If somebody wants to go after it, then it’s by definition worthwhile,” says Mike Shanahan, spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute. Modern technologies such as horizontal drilling and new seismic techniques have increased the chances of striking a deposit, but the risks of coming up dry are still high. So are the costs — exploratory wells run as much as $2.2 million each, not counting the expense of hauling equipment and building roads in rugged terrain.

To prime the pumps, the administration has proposed offering industry more incentives for energy production in the form of tax breaks and government subsidies. But even if companies are paid to drill, untapped lands in the West aren’t expected to yield enough oil to significantly reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign petroleum. According to Pete Morton, an economist with the Wilderness Society, the government’s own figures show that a proposal to open 15 national monuments in the West to drilling would produce enough oil to meet U.S. consumption for only 15 days.

Studies show that the amount of gas on Western lands is far more plentiful than oil: As one industry scientist puts it, “The Rocky Mountains are a Persian Gulf of gas.” But fewer than 1 in 10 acres of public land is currently closed to gas drilling — and enough gas exists in the remainder, according to data from the National Petroleum Council, to supply consumer needs for 40 years. “You don’t have to develop every square inch of public lands — especially when it’s not going to make any difference whatsoever to our energy independence,” says Jim Baca, who served as director of the BLM under Clinton.

In the long run, drilling near national parks and monuments may not produce much oil — but it will effectively remove millions of acres in the West from consideration as wilderness areas. Once an area is approved for energy production, it opens up the land to other development, even if a single well is never drilled. “For the extractive industries, it’s one last time at the trough,” says Morton, the Wilderness Society economist. “They’ve got oilmen in the White House. If you put in roads and construct drill pads and cut trees, you eliminate areas from wilderness consideration.”

Environmental groups stress that they aren’t opposed to all oil and gas development. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which is leading the fight to block drilling around Moab, supports production in the Uinta Basin in northeastern Utah, which holds most of the state’s energy resources. What the organization objects to, says Liz Thomas, staff attorney in the group’s Moab office, is the effort to encroach on what’s left of the nation’s wilderness. “We should step back and evaluate what the benefits are if we drill, and what they are if we don’t drill,” she says. “There’s just some places that deserve to be protected as they are.”


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Straight to the point: Donations have been concerningly slow for our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, over the next few weeks so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

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