Broad opposition to potential drilling near doorstep of Zion National Park

Mar 9, 2017

These lands fall into the proposed lease area in Dry Creek. This is an area also proposed for wilderness.

Photo by Luke Henry/SUWA
The BLM’s analysis failed to take into account key impacts.

With today’s close of an official comment period, conservationists, park advocates, local governments and citizens near and far are firm in their opposition to a plan from the St. George field office of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to offer three oil and gas leases, two of which are less than two miles from Zion National Park in southwestern Utah. The comment period provided for public input on a proposed September lease sale of land parcels next to the rural residential gateway community of Virgin and dissected by the North Creek drainage – a perennial stream that flows into the Virgin River.

“There are plenty of places where energy development could be appropriate in Utah, but the doorsteps of a prized national park and the banks of important waterways are not those places,” said Nada Culver, senior director for agency policy at The Wilderness Society. “We have made it clear to the BLM that we will work to keep places that are Too Wild to Drill off the leasing block. There is a chance for the BLM to get this right and guide development to more appropriate places.”

The comments submitted to the BLM, on behalf of The Wilderness Society, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Sierra Club and the National Resources Defense Council, as well as those submitted by National Parks Conservation Association, made these recommendations:

  • The agency should defer all oil and gas leases from the St. George Field Office (SGFO) from the September 2017 sale until an amendment to the 1999 SGFO Resource Management Plan is completed, or at minimum, until a thorough analysis of impacts is included to support a decision. This is a common-sense approach that offers the best protection for Zion National Park, the connected landscape and southwestern Utah’s economy.
  • With 57% of the land bordering Zion National Park managed by the BLM, it is critical that the BLM work closely with the National Park Service as the agency makes management decisions on land in close proximity to the park, and take a hard and comprehensive look at potential impacts to the park’s dark night skies, natural quiet, air quality, climate, scenic views, terrain, soils, vegetation and wildlife.
  • The agency should consider an alternative plan that better addresses concerns for cultural resources and the wildlife that inhabit the region.

Concerns with the current plan include the fact that the nearly 20-year-old resource management plan, which allows these lands to be leased, is not consistent with more recent collaborative planning efforts to identify areas for appropriate energy development near sensitive landscapes, particularly national parks.  The BLM’s environmental assessment, which analyzes harm to other resources and if and how leasing should proceed, cannot make up for the out of date plan and is also ignoring important considerations. Further concerns include:

  • The BLM’s analysis fails to address the importance of travel and tourism for the economic sustainability of the park’s gateway communities and analyze reasonably foreseeable impacts from oil and gas development on the quality of the recreation experience for visitors to Zion National Park.  With a record 4.3 million visitors in 2016, Zion National Park is the most visited park in Utah and the sixth most visited park in the national park system, generating nearly $270 million dollars in economic output and over 2,700 jobs in the area.
  • The BLM’s leasing analysis fails to consider an appropriate range of alternatives including an alternative that would eliminate impacts to wilderness caliber lands.
  • The BLM’s leasing decision does not analyze and disclose the climate change impacts of its decision to make these lands available for leasing, including the social cost to local communities from increased greenhouse gas emissions.

“The BLM is once again proposing to lease first and think later,” said Landon Newell, staff attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.  “The BLM is relying on a grossly outdated resource management plan that fails to account for the sight and sound of oil and gas development on Zion National Park, as well as impacts to watersheds, climate change and wilderness caliber lands.  It should defer leasing these parcels until it takes these values into account.”

The proposed lease parcels also overlap lands identified by the BLM as possessing wilderness characteristics (including outstanding opportunities for solitude and recreation) and were proposed for Wilderness designation in America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act, H.R. 2430, S. 1375 (114th Congress).  More than four million visitors make the trek to Zion National Park annually and the local economy and tourism industry rely on collaboration with the National Park Service to protect – not threaten – the world class resources visitors come to enjoy.

“The BLM’s Environmental Assessment missed the mark by failing to fully analyze impacts of oil and gas exploration and development on Zion’s air quality, dark night skies, natural quiet, water resources and overall visitor experience,” said Cory MacNulty, Utah Senior Program Manager for National Parks Conservation Association. “We agree with Zion National Park who, in its comments to the BLM, requested that these leases be deferred.”



The two oil and gas lease parcels near Zion National Park, as well as a third parcel located adjacent to the Black Ridge Wilderness Area, are proposed for sale at BLM’s September  2017 competitive oil and gas lease sale (environmental assessment available here).

There are currently no producing wells in this region of Utah and the BLM is under no requirement to offer these parcels for lease.  In addition, the oil and gas industry has roughly 2 million acres of BLM-managed lands in Utah already under lease that they have not developed.  Despite the extensive leased lands, in 2016 the drilling of new oil and gas wells in Utah reached a 30-year low.  There is clearly no need to offer these three leases for sale and put Zion National Park and the surrounding region at risk from mineral development.

The plan has also been strongly opposed by Washington County officials as well as the Town of Springdale, who passed resolutions and submitted their own letters to the agency.

Photographs taken from the lease parcels are available here.


Nada Culver