New drilling rigs and oil and gas infrastructure could sprout within sight of Hovenweep National Monument, according to a proposed March lease sale issued by a Utah office of the Bureau of Land Management.
An environmental analysis released Sept. 22 proposes to lease 51,400 acres of federal minerals in southeastern Utah for possible oil and gas development.
The proposal includes 43 parcels in Grand and San Juan counties. They include Parcels 50 and 51, totaling 2,665 acres, on the eastern Utah border, north and west of Hovenweep National Monument archaeological sites in Colorado and Utah.
As part of the environmental analysis, the BLM completed a viewshed study to determine whether future mineral resource development would be visible to recreational visitors within Hovenweep National Monument.
It considered impacts from four key observation points within the Utah and Colorado portions of the monument, including the national monument entrance, Holly ruin, Cutthroat ruin, and the turnoff from Montezuma County Road 10 to Cutthroat.
It found that about 20 percent of the lease parcels would be visible to the casual observer at Hovenweep. For example, from the Road 10 Cutthroat turnoff, 269 acres of nearby proposed energy leases are visible.
Mitigation measures suggested by the BLM include vegetative screening and color camouflaging of industry facilities, and positioning of facilities within the lease area to decrease the likelihood that development would attract the attention of the casual observer at Hovenweep.
Environmental groups have criticized the lease sale proposal.
Landon Newell, of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said the leasing stipulations for the parcels near Hovenweep are too basic, considering the natural values of the area.
“The BLM bound themselves by setting a low bar with leasing stipulations for the operator. More restrictions are needed on noise and lighting,” he said. “Monuments are prized for their natural views, and development on these parcels would directly threaten those values.”
Energy infrastructure such as drill rigs, pump jacks and storage tanks can mar the scenery sought by tourists, he said, and lighting and flaring cause light pollution. Hovenweep Superintendent Jeannine McElveen said in an email that her staff is reviewing the BLM’s lease proposal and will submit comments based on identified concerns.
In 2014, Hovenweep was designated as an International Dark Sky Park because of its seclusion and absence of development nearby. The park offers night sky viewing activities for visitors, including the use of a telescope. It has protections that limit light pollution.
Encroachment of oil and gas development on parks and monuments with the “dark sky” status is becoming a concern, said Dr. John Barentine, program manager for the International Dark-Sky Association, based in Tuscon.
No park has had its dark sky designation compromised by oil and gas development, but the issue is on the radar, he said.
“It’s a timely question. We are getting reports that more oil and gas development is a concern for dark sky parks,” Barentine said. “Changes at the Interior Department mean they are more friendly toward increasing drilling leases.”
Parks submit yearly reports on the status of their dark skies designation, which includes data that measure night sky brightness.
Barentine is encouraging monuments and parks to contact operators of nearby drilling operations to consider mitigating light sources, such as aiming light downward, and screening to hide where flaring takes place. Improving the lighting to less glaring options is also seen as beneficial to workers.
Dead Horse Point State Park, in Utah, is a dark sky park, and officials there worry about light pollution from oil and gas development in that area. “It could be a battle in 2018,” he said.
According to a BLM press release, the lease-sale proposal is keeping with President Donald Trump’s America First energy plan. Oil and gas development on BLM-managed lands in Utah contributed $1.7 billion to the economy and supported 9,171 jobs in fiscal year 2016.
Comments on the BLM lease proposal will be most helpful if received by Oct. 23, the BLM said. Comments are accepted via BLM’s ePlanning website at https://go.usa.gov/xNfAT, by email at [email protected] or by mail to the BLM Moab Field Office, 82 East Dogwood, Moab, UT 84532, Include “Canyon Country District March 2018 Oil and Gas Lease Sale” in the subject line of emails.