Utahns Rally Against Drilling in Popular Scenic Wonderland
When the BLM announced recently that it intended to lease 80,000 acres of public lands for oil and gas development in and around Utah's renowned San Rafael Swell -- including spectacular areas that have been proposed for wilderness designation -- it touched off a raw nerve with Utahns.
To help give voice to this righteous sense of outrage, the Sierra Club and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) teamed up to organize a mid-September rally in front of the BLM's Utah offices in downtown Salt Lake City, knowing that drilling activity could commence shortly after the scheduled lease sale in November.
"When the BLM announced they were planning to lease nearly 80,000 acres in the San Rafael Swell for oil and gas, my gut told me that many Utahns are not going to like this," said Tim Wagner, below, a Salt Lake City-based organizer with the Sierra Club's Our Wild America campaign. "It's obvious that the Utah BLM is still operating under the Bush-era protocol of 'drill first, ask later.' We intend to change that."
The Salt Lake Tribune reported that "at least 200 protesters" gathered to hear a host of speakers talk about the dangers of drilling the Swell. Demonstrators argued that the new leases could not only undermine what makes the area special, but also do irreparable harm to Utah's outdoor industry, which currently generates an estimated $12 billion and employs more than 122,000 people, roughly 9.5 percent of all employment in the state.
Above, Goblin Valley; below, San Rafael Reef -- both part of the San Rafael Swell.
"These treasured areas will become an industrial zone with big trucks and pipes and drill rigs," Wagner told the crowd. "People don't come to Utah to see drill rigs. They come to see the wild land that we treasure so much."
BLM spokeswoman Megan Crandall said the agency has done its due diligence and determined that the lands are appropriate for leasing. But drilling opponents, who filed an administrative appeal against the leases, say the BLM has not adequately surveyed the lease parcels in the Swell to determine what is there. Climbers, hikers, rafters, and other recreationists say the Swell contains some of Utah's best open terrain.
Below, Lauren Wood, a seventh-generation Utahn and third-generation river runner whose grandfather founded Holiday River Expeditions, described the leasing plan as "forfeiting beautiful wilderness areas to industrial development" and said it was "in direct opposition to what makes our community great."
Peter Metcalf, below at left, CEO of Black Diamond Equipment, a Salt Lake City-based maker of climbing, skiing, and backpacking gear, said the BLM's proposal to lease wilderness-quality lands for drilling shows that the agency is out of touch with Utah's outdoor culture.
"It is time for the Obama administration to provide new guidance to the agency and remind it that national treasures such as the San Rafael Swell should not be sacrificed for a quick buck," said David Garbett, above at right, staff attorney for SUWA.
Also among the speakers was 76-year-old Craig Otterstrom, below, a lifelong resident of Castle Dale, the gateway community to the Swell. He described how his parents, a coal miner and school teacher, took him on trips into the area as a child -- a tradition he has continued, running a half-marathon through the Swell with three generations of his family the week before the rally.
"Our children and grandchildren deserve the opportunity to experience the beauty of this special place, unspoiled by the intrusion of oil rigs, pipelines, and air pollution," Otterstrom said. "We don't need to drill everywhere. With a little discretion and common sense we can decide where drilling should be and where it should not. San Rafael is the wrong place to drill."
The Swell's distinctive, often surreal landscape has served as a cinematic backdrop for feature films including the 2009 version of "Star Trek," in which the area served as the setting for Commander Spock's home planet, Vulcan. Areas within the swell such as Eagle Canyon, below, and Lost Springs Wash have been proposed for wilderness.
"The BLM has made a mistake by putting this area up for leasing," Wagner said. "There are some areas that should not be up for industrialization and the San Rafael swell is one of those areas."