Interior Secretary Ken Salazar swung through Moab, Utah yesterday as part of a western trip to promote a balanced approach to use of Interior lands while listening to the needs and interests of local citizens. The State of Utah has sued the Department over the Secretary’s “Wildlands” initiative, which was withdrawn earlier this year and criticized in some quarters as a top down approach. The Secretary seems to be promoting a different approach to resource conservation on this trip.
The Secretary chose the Moab Adventure Center, which is owned by Western River Expeditions, to highlight the economic value of recreation on public lands. Informed about Secretary Salazar’s plans the day before the visit, Brian Merrill, CEO of Western River Expeditions, hustled to get from Salt Lake to Moab in time for the event. He said the Secretary handled himself well, fielding questions from advocates with diverse political and ideological views. Only one person carried a protest sign, although that became the lead about the meeting in the Salt Lake Tribune.
During his opening remarks to the group Secretary Salazar said, “We need to understand that when we talk about conservation and outdoor recreation, we are talking about jobs. Between now and 2021, there’s a need to create 20 million jobs, and 2.1 million can come from outdoor recreation.”
Unlike many scripted events by political appointees, the Secretary entered into an open dialogue, fielding questions openly from anyone in attendance. Merrill said about 200 people showed up. 2/3rds were multiple use advocates and motorized interests and 1/3 environmentalists. For the most part the dialogue was respectful and civil. When it got a little raucous the Secretary calmed the group and asked for civility. A representative from Senator Hatch’s office was also in attendance.
Many of the questions from the group focused on oil and gas exploration in the region and access issues. Outfitters in Utah are concerned about tar sands development, oil and gas exploration and drilling in the view sheds of National Parks and river canyons. BLM’s Oil Shale and Tar Sand Programmatic EIS states, “While oil shale is found in many places worldwide, by far the largest deposits in the world are found in the United States in the Green River Formation, which covers portions of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. Estimates of the oil resource in place within the Green River Formation range from 1.2 to 1.8 trillion barrels. Not all resources in place are recoverable; however, even a moderate estimate of 800 billion barrels of recoverable oil from oil shale in the Green River Formation is three times greater than the proven oil reserves of Saudi Arabia.”
A post on Merrill’s blog underscores the concerns surrounding the Green River. “For those of us who have spent a great deal of our life in this beautiful canyon, the idea of drilling a well there seems ludicrous. My first thought was that the wells would be somewhere close to the canyon but surely would not be in the canyon. The fact is that the current proposal being championed by the drilling company and by the Bureau of Land Management places drilling rigs where they could be seen and heard from the river. There are alternative plans that would place the wells farther away and the drilling would take place at an angle. Hopefully, wise heads will prevail and we won't be seeing the wells from the river.”
Since his post, BLM has withdrawn some of the plans to drill near National Parks and in river corridors, but many issues surrounding oil shale development and exploration continue to haunt the area. Merrill thinks there are thousands of acres of land out west that are not pristine or scenic that could be used for energy development without sacrificing the areas significant to the travel industry and the natural beauty of the area.
Merrill, who is also an AOA board member, said one of the most interesting exchanges at yesterday’s events occurred between Secretary Salazar and an advocate for a pardon for Tim Dechristopher, a 29 year old who posed as an oil industry bidder at a BLM auction for oil and gas drilling leases. Dechristopher was sentenced to two years in federal prison last July and fined $10,000 for sabotaging the auction by running up and winning bids to 12,000 acres with no intent to pay for them. He was convicted of making false statements and violating laws on oil and gas leasing. One Dechristopher supporter urged Salazar to ask President Obama to pardon Dechristopher. But Salazar said he would not ask for a pardon. “No matter how passionate Mr. Dechristopher felt in putting in the false bids”, Secretary Salazar said, “it was against the law”. Prominent environmentalists and a string of celebrities have supported Dechristopher. Patagonia contributed $25,000 to his legal defense.