Cultural Resources Archives


  • January 17th, 2020

    The Trump administration’s rush for “energy dominance” encounters another setback in Utah; BLM forced to reanalyze environmental impacts of oil and gas development

    For Immediate Release

    Contact:
    Landon Newell, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, 801.428.3991, landon@suwa.org
    Ann Alexander, Natural Resources Defense Council, 415.875.8243, aalexander@nrdc.org
    Phil Hanceford, The Wilderness Society, 303.225.4636, phil_hanceford@tws.org

    Salt Lake City, UT (January 17, 2020): Earlier this week, the Trump administration announced that it had withdrawn its approval of 175 controversial oil and gas drilling permits on public lands in the Desolation Canyon region of eastern Utah.

    In September of 2018, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) approved the Horse Bench Natural Gas Development Project and the drilling of up to 175 natural gas wells on “Horse Bench,” a prominent prow of land overlooking Nine Mile Canyon and the Desolation Canyon stretch of the Green River. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Natural Resources Defense Council, Nine Mile Canyon Coalition, and The Wilderness Society appealed the local BLM manager’s approval of this project to the Utah BLM state director. 

    The conservation groups argued that the project, if implemented, would decimate greater sage-grouse habitat, destroy BLM-identified wilderness characteristics, and exacerbate the ongoing climate crisis—impacts that the BLM had failed to fully analyze. In his decision, the state director agreed, reversed the BLM’s drilling approvals, and ordered the agency to “complete additional [environmental] analysis.”  

    “The Desolation Canyon region, one of Utah’s most remote areas, provides critical habitat for wildlife—including greater sage-grouse—as well as outstanding opportunities for hiking and camping, and evidence of a rich cultural history,” said Landon Newell, staff attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “Without this victory, these values would have been lost to the sights and sounds of industrial development.” 

     The state director’s decision grants a reprieve to one of Utah’s wildest and most culturally significant landscapes. The BLM itself has recognized that the Desolation Canyon region at issue here is “one of the largest blocks of roadless BLM public lands within the continental United States.” 

    “The original finding that plunking down 175 natural gas wells next to the Desolation Canyon wilderness would have no significant environmental impact was clearly out of whack with reality’” said Ann Alexander, a senior attorney with Natural Resources Defense Council. “The State Director did the right thing in setting it aside, which should lead to real scrutiny of the proposal.” 

    “For far too long our public lands have been handed off to the oil and gas industry without any consideration for the enormous impacts of these decisions on our climate, wildlife and health,” said Phil Hanceford, Conservation Director at The Wilderness Society. “We welcome the BLM’s decision and hope the agency will move towards managing our public lands to be a key solution to climate change, not a growing contributor.”

    In addition, the large industrial equipment required for this drilling project, including tanker trucks, drill rigs, and fracking equipment, would have passed through Nine Mile Canyon to access Horse Bench. Nine Mile Canyon is world-renowned for its remarkable density and diversity of prehistoric sites and artifacts—including petroglyphs and pictographs, kivas, and granaries—and is significant to several Native American tribes. The canyon also contains important historic sites, including evidence of the post-Civil War era Buffalo Soldiers and early settlers. The BLM has described the canyon as “the world’s longest art gallery” and an “outdoor museum.” Dust and pollution from passing trucks could harm these irreplaceable treasures, and proposed roads would make the area more accessible to vandals.

    “Nine Mile Canyon is a cultural and archaeological treasure,” said Pam Miller, Director of the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition. “This victory goes a long way to protecting these world-class resources for future generations.” 

    The BLM’s withdrawal this week of 175 oil and gas drilling permits is just the latest setback for the Trump administration’s “energy dominance” agenda in Utah and nationally. Following several significant legal precedents, including a pivotal March 2019 federal court ruling, the BLM on four recent occasions has been forced to pull back oil and gas leasing decisions covering more than 328,000 acres of public lands in Utah due to inadequate environmental analyses (more about these decisions here). 

    ###

     

     

     

  • December 19th, 2019

    Last Friday, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released a draft travel management plan for the San Rafael Desert in Emery County, Utah that would more than double the number of miles open to motorized use—forever changing the area’s stunning and remote wild lands, and turning them into a playground for off-road vehicles.

    The San Rafael Desert is a sublime area of Utah’s backcountry, encompassing the newly-designated Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness and wilderness-quality lands such as Sweetwater Reef and the San Rafael River.

    Federal law requires the BLM to minimize impacts to natural and cultural resources when designating motorized vehicle routes. Instead, the agency’s draft travel management plan for the San Rafael Desert would inundate this remote area with off-road vehicle routes, increasing the miles open to motorized vehicles from 300 miles to more than 775.

    Click here to tell the BLM its draft plan for the San Rafael Desert is unacceptable and fails to minimize damage to natural and cultural resources.

    Labyrinth Canyon. © Ray Bloxham/SUWA

    Among other things, the BLM’s preferred alternative would:

    • Designate as open to motorized vehicles more than 300 miles of routes that are reclaimed, reclaiming, or do not exist on the ground.  Designating these routes is unnecessary and will damage desert soils, vegetation, riparian areas, cultural resources and wildlife habitat.
    • Designate as open to motorized vehicles popular non-motorized areas such as Moonshine Wash (from the trailhead to the slot canyon), June’s Bottom, and along the San Rafael River.

    The San Rafael Desert travel management plan is the first of thirteen travel plans the BLM will complete over the next six years as a part of a court-supervised settlement agreement with conservation and off-road vehicle groups. The plans will determine where motorized vehicles are allowed on some of Utah’s wildest public lands.

    Tell the BLM to fulfill its legal obligation and keep motorized trails out of wildlife habitat, cultural sites, and other sensitive or inappropriate areas in the San Rafael Desert.

    The BLM is giving the public only 30 days during the busy holiday season to review its proposed travel management plan and submit written comments.

    Click here to submit your comments by January 13th.

    Also be sure to check out our story map for more information, including maps and photographs of currently-designated and proposed motorized vehicle routes.

  • March 28th, 2019

    Following public outcry and a formal protest from SUWA, this week the Utah Bureau of Land Management (BLM) deferred all of its proposed oil and gas leases in San Juan County from its March 2019 lease sale “due to additional environmental analysis required.”

    The proposed leases were on the doorstep of Bears Ears, Hovenweep, and Canyons of the Ancients national monuments.*

    Simply put, these leases would not have been deferred if not for SUWA’s tireless defense of every acre of BLM public land deserving of wilderness protection in Utah.

    Our defense of Utah’s redrock wilderness relies upon the support of our members. Please become a member of SUWA today.


    It’s the nature of environmental defense that this victory is short-lived—although deferred, the parcels will likely be back up for sale at the September 2019 lease sale.

    But SUWA will be there to fight those leases, too, and this decision by the BLM puts us in a strong position in our challenges to other BLM lease sales (from March and December 2018), because those lease sales relied on the same environmental analysis (surprise!). If it is insufficient now, then it was insufficient then.

    Not all of our work results in victories, of course, and most of our work never makes the news. But you can be assured that SUWA will never give up and never give an inch in our defense of the Redrock.

    Please become a member of SUWA today.

  • April 24th, 2018

    Reports From the Field is a blog of SUWA’s Field Volunteers, accounting experiences, reflections and activism from time spent in direct service of Utah’s wild and public lands. 

    When hiking and exploring Bears Ears National Monument, it is easy to lose oneself in the beauty and isolation of its many canyons. The serene beauty found in the region now widely associated with the Bears’ Ears buttes is one of the main appeals of this landscape. However, a scan of the canyon walls and alcoves reveals glimpses into the distinctive and vibrant cultural history of the region. While many call Bears Ears a wilderness, it was called home by generations of indigenous peoples, whose artwork, architecture, and objects of daily life may still be found throughout the Bears Ears cultural landscape. As an archaeologist, I can attest to the scientific significance of these sites, but more importantly these are places of cultural identity and spiritual importance to descendant Native American communities.

    Ruins visible from a great distance across the canyon expanse.

    I had the chance earlier this month to explore one such cultural space with a backcountry cleanup project organized by SUWA at Fish and Owl Canyon. Our crew of volunteer scientists and professionals performed trail maintenance, cleaned out and dispersed illegal fire pit rings, and carried out trash left by hikers. All the while, we were witness to archaeological sites throughout the canyons. A granary tucked beneath a rock overhang. A scatter of ceramic sherds on a talus slope. A stark white pictograph above a habitation site.

    Increasingly rare potsherds indicate the cultural landscape of the canyons.

    These were all created by the Ancestral Pueblo culture over 700 years ago, amid a time of social unrest and environmental uncertainty. The placement of dwellings in nearly inaccessible canyon alcoves has been interpreted by many archaeologists as an indicator that defense and security were a priority for the people who called these canyons home. Our small contingent approached one such site, but were appropriately foiled by the steepness of the surrounding slickrock. Even amid a time of uncertainty, the people who dwelt in Fish and Owl Canyons still filled their lives with beauty, craftsmanship, and sustenance, as seen in pictographs adorning the canyon walls, black-on-white ceramic sherds found beneath a site, and corn cobs lying on a dry alcove floor.

    I first hiked Owl Canyon in 2009 and remembered well the ruins, rock art, and artifacts found throughout the canyon. On this return trip I was happy to see that the ruins and rock art appeared undamaged and still in good condition. However, I was disturbed to find the wealth of ceramic sherds that once adorned sites were largely gone. In less than a decade, a deluge of visitors had carried away these pieces of the Bears Ears cultural landscape. As we all continue to fight for the legal protection of Bears Ears, it is just as important to continue to educate a public unfamiliar with the proper etiquette required to visit cultural sites. Our cleanup work helped reverse recent human impact on the canyon environment, but a respect for the cultural legacies of Bears Ears is essential for the continued preservation of this landscape.

    Our responsibility resides in the honoring and protection of a cultural legacy.

     

    Maxwell Forton, Archaeologist
    Binghamton University

  • January 3rd, 2018

    Federal Public Lands Targeted for Oil and Gas Development near Bears Ears, Hovenweep and Canyons of the Ancients National Monuments, and Culturally Significant Areas in Southeast Utah

    For Immediate Release
    January 3, 2018

    Contact:
    Stephen Bloch, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, 801.428.3981
    Landon Newell, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, 801.428.3991

    Salt Lake City (Jan. 3): Yesterday, a coalition of conservation groups led by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) formally protested the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) decision to auction off more than 51,400 acres of remarkable Federal public lands in southeast Utah for oil and gas leasing and development.  Included in BLM’s lease sale, scheduled for March 20, 2018, are public lands near Bears Ears, Hovenweep and Canyons of the Ancients National Monuments, as well as in the culturally rich Alkali Ridge Area of Critical Environmental Concern and along the Green and San Juan rivers.

    “BLM’s short-sighted decision threatens Utah’s red rock wilderness as well as significant cultural and archaeological resources,” said Landon Newell, staff attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.  “BLM’s ‘lease everything, lease everywhere’ approach to oil and gas development needlessly threatens iconic red rock landscapes and irreplaceable cultural history in the ill-conceived push for ‘energy dominance.”

    “We won’t sit idly by while President Trump and Interior Secretary Zinke auction off America’s cultural and public lands heritage to the oil and gas industry,” said Stephen Bloch, legal director with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.  “This lease sale flies in the face of historic preservation and environmental laws that Congress put in place to make sure that BLM thinks before it acts; not ‘lease first, and think later.’”

    In addition to offering leases near Bears Ears, Hovenweep and Canyons of the Ancients National Monuments, BLM plans to auction off culturally and ecologically significant public lands throughout southeastern Utah including:

    • Several tracts in a culturally rich part of southeastern Utah known as Alkali Ridge. In 2015 BLM briefly considered leasing in this area before acknowledging that it did not have enough basic information about the cultural resources in the area and backed away from that proposal.  BLM still lacks this information but nevertheless is now willing to put these cultural sites at risk;
    • Several tracts along segments of the Green River and San Juan River popular with families, recreational business, and tourists for river running, as well as home to several endangered fish species; and
    • Several tracts near Moab, Utah, including in the Goldbar Canyon and Labyrinth Canyon proposed wilderness areas.

    “It is shameful that the Trump administration is attempting to sell off our cherished wild places for the benefit of the oil and gas industry,” said Lena Moffitt, Senior Director of the Sierra Club’s Our Wild America Campaign. “We will continue to pursue all legal options to protect America’s public lands from the greed and recklessness of this administration.”

    “Through lease sales like this one, Interior Secretary Zinke is handing the reins of our public lands to his pals in the oil and gas industry, despite their proximity to iconic national parks, monuments, and archeologically-rich canyons,” said Marc Thomas, with the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club.  “This unfortunate giveaway is taking place even though the industry has already stockpiled more than 1.7 million acres of leased, but unused, BLM-managed lands in Utah.  This is not the sort of stewardship Americans, including those of us living in southeast Utah, want for our special places.”

    The following groups protested the Canyon Country District’s environmental assessment for the March 2018 lease sale: Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Center for Biological Diversity, Conservation Colorado (protested two lease parcels near Colorado border), Green River Action Network, Living Rivers, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, and The Wilderness Society (protest available here).  BLM’s environmental assessment is available here.

    The following groups protested the Canyon Country District’s Determination of NEPA Adequacy for the March 2018 lease sale: Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Center for Biological Diversity, Green River Action Network, Living Rivers, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Sierra Club (protest available here).  BLM’s Determination of NEPA Adequacy is available here.

    At the end of BLM’s 2016 fiscal year, there were approximately 2.9 million acres of federal public land in Utah leased for oil and gas development (here—follow hyperlink for Table 2 Acreage in Effect). At the same time, oil and gas companies had less than 1.2 million acres of those leased lands in production—less than forty percent of the total land under lease (here – follow hyperlink for Table 6 Acreage of Producing Leases).  This disparity makes clear that there is no need to sacrifice any of these remarkable areas for oil and gas leasing and development.

    Click here for photos of areas to be auctioned off by BLM in southeastern Utah for fossil fuel development.

    ###