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Sunday, August 26, 2018

Commentary: Oil and gas leases threaten national parks

By Walt Dabney | For The Tribune

As a former superintendent of Canyonlands National Park in Utah, I am honored to have served as an ambassador for the spectacular cultural and natural resources that are found in this iconic place. It was my duty to protect the natural and cultural resources of this special landscape for the benefit of current and future generations.

I was pleased to learn that recently the Department of Justice supported a federal court ruling maintaining the authority of the executive branch to issue the ban on uranium mining near the Grand Canyon, and I hope the Interior Department will continue this moratorium. The Grand Canyon is an iconic national treasure that very much deserves this protection. However, there are other national parks across the American West that remain threatened by nearby oil and gas development. The administration has an opportunity to review oil and gas policies that are currently damaging our national parks and the recreation economy that is thriving on adjacent federal lands.

In the past year, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has dismantled policies that protect our national parks from nearby energy development. This has upset the careful balance that is needed on public lands that border and surround our parks, where such development must be planned thoughtfully and be designed to avoid impacts on the wildlife, recreation and immaculate scenery within our parks. Instead, we’re witnessing a one-sided approach to land management that prioritizes the interest of oil and gas companies at the expense of protecting our national parks.

Today, the National Park System includes more than 400 areas, covering more than 85 million acres in every state and U.S. territory. National parks have become major sources of revenue, particularly for the rural communities that surround them. In 2017, our 400-plus park areas provided more than 300,000 jobs and generated more than $35 billion in economic output.

However, when the administration introduced their “energy dominance” agenda, our national parks came under attack. Leasing has been proposed adjacent or in close proximity to Chaco Culture National Historical Park, Great Sand Dunes National Park, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and Canyonlands National Park — just to name a few. Some of these parks have been spared the ugliness of visible energy development due to widespread outcry, including from nearby communities, elected officials, and the National Park Service. Yet, as the threats to our parks increase, it is becoming more and more difficult for members of the public to be heard, as the minimum number of days for public input to be heard has been cut to just ten days.

In September, the Bureau of Land Management is auctioning off over 200,000 acres of oil and gas leases just west of the Green River, which serves as one of Canyonlands National Park’s boundaries. Some of these leases also lie within 2 miles of Horseshoe Canyon, a separate unit of the park that is home to the “Great Gallery,” one of the most famous rock art panels in the country, if not the world. This sale could bring irrevocable changes to the landscape surrounding Canyonlands, permanently marring the park’s dark night skies, unbroken views and visitor experience.

The oil and gas industry has been very aggressive with this administration, forcing it to abandon common-sense policies that once protected our parks and ignore the voices of hundreds of millions of Americans who visit our parks every year. There is still time to protect these places and the hundreds of thousands of jobs that national parks and the lands near them create. In the 21st century, Americans want high quality of life, and that means the clean air and natural places our parks and public lands provide. Companies of all types are moving to communities near parks and public lands, supplementing visitor-related jobs and creating long-lasting economic growth, unlike the boom-and-bust nature of oil and gas. Of course we need energy, but we have the choice to be smart about the way we develop it, so we can have well-planned energy development and protect our pristine natural treasures, like Canyonlands National Park, for future generations.

Walt Dabney is a retired National Park Service superintendent for southeastern Utah’s Arches and Canyonlands national parks.