SUWA petitions state agency to protect Colorado, Green Rivers

In early February, SUWA petitioned a little-known state agency to protect the mighty Colorado and Green Rivers from activities like oil and gas leasing.  The Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands oversees the management of so-called “sovereign” or “state lands,” which include the lands underlying navigable waters within Utah like the Great Salt Lake and larger rivers, like the Colorado and Green.

Unlike the BLM with its multiple-use mandate and Utah’s School Trust Lands Administration with its myopic focus to maximize short term gain, the DFFSL is required to manage its lands according to something called the “public trust doctrine.” This requires that the state put the long term protection and preservation of natural resources above short term economic gain.

How does the DFFSL actually manage these lands? A bit haphazardly it turns out.  DFFSL is supposed to prepare something called a “comprehensive management plan” which outlines management objectives for specific water bodies and then develop site specific plans for particular issues like recreation and mineral development.  There is no such comprehensive plan for the Colorado and Green Rivers.  Instead, DFFSL follows a 1998 mineral leasing plan for the rivers which allows for oil and gas leasing in special places like Labyrinth Canyon, Westwater, and the Daily Section of the Colorado.

The folks at DFFSL would tell you – “hold on a minute, we sell these leases with ‘no-surface occupancy stipulations” – meaning that companies can’t put up a drill rig on the river’s edge.  What they won’t tell you is that these leases can drive development just a few hundred feet away or on the hills overlooking the river.

We’ve had DFFSL officials tell us that they have talked with BLM staff about this and have been told they (BLM) can’t imagine allowing such a thing to happen on neighboring public lands.  Sure, and we’ve got some great oceanfront property to sell in Utah’s west desert.  That kind of “promise” will be cold comfort when a company is given the green light to drill on the BLM lands along the Daily Section.

Back to our story.  SUWA has petitioned DFFSL to prepare a comprehensive management plan for the Colorado and Green Rivers to guide how that agency manages these remarkable resources. In the meantime, we’ve asked them not to offer or sell any new oil and gas or other leases.  In other words, “think first, lease later.”  DFFSL has done the same thing on the Great Salt Lake – deferring new mineral leasing while it prepares a new comprehensive plan.  It only makes sense to do the same thing here.