Despite an overwhelming surplus of already-leased lands not in production and approved-but-not-acted-on drilling permits, on February 20th the Bureau of Land Management’s Utah state office will auction for oil and gas development land outside of an area known as the “Parowan Gap” – a literal treasure trove of Native American rock art and an area just now being understood for its astronomical importance – in southwest Utah. BLM had proposed leasing these same lands in 2005, but deferred offering the leases following public outcry over this short-sighted decision. A May 2005 Salt Lake Tribune editorial arguing against the sale of leases around the Parowan Gap is available at the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance’s website.
“By deciding to re-offer these lease parcels ringing the Parowan Gap, the BLM has shown again that there are no limits to how far the Bush administration will go to please industry,” said Stephen Bloch, staff attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “BLM’s decision shows a complete disregard for this sacred and irreplaceable cultural site.”
The lease sale includes more than 11,000 acres (in 8 parcels) that are close to the Parowan Gap, a site listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Located just north of Cedar City, Utah, the Parowan Gap complex is described by the State of Utah’s website as: “a nationally recognized extravaganza of petroglyphs – a superb ‘gallery’ of native Native American rock art…local Native Americans consider them to be an important part of their cultural history relating stories of their ancestor’s lifeways.” The Iron County webpage described a walk through the Parowan Gap this way: “Even today to walk through the narrows gives the visitor the feeling of reverential awe. The huge pillars on the north and south jut upward into the vast expanse of the sky bringing the blue of the heavens down into the bowels of the earth while the pillars connect the earth to the limitless heavens.”
In a report prepared for the lease sale, a BLM archaeologist discussed the importance of the Parowan Gap as an astronomical observatory:
Given that these agricultural people [the “Fremont”] were using the Gap as a solar/lunar observatory, a whole “Pandora’s Box” of implications arise therefrom. These folks would not have gone out there simply to see what time in the cycle it was, and then returned home. There probably would have been all sorts of ceremonies, celebrations, supplications, healings, initiations, and who knows what all. . . . While the focus of all this may have been on the “Gap” of concentrated rock art, it is virtually beyond question that a wider area was of great importance, also – some sort of sacred locale with strong socio-religious connotations, but no fenced boundaries.
The late Dr. Kenneth Brewer, the State of Utah’s Poet Laureate from 2003-2006, decried BLM’s initial plan in 2005 to lease the Parowan Gap in a letter to the agency: “Personally, I consider Parowan Gap to be an ancient Art Gallery and worthy of the same respect and protection that we, as Utahns, would give to any Art Gallery or Museum. I do not believe that most Utahns would even consider searching for oil and gas in the immediate vicinity of any of our galleries or museums.” (A copy of Dr. Brewer’s letter is available at the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance’s webpage.)
This sale also includes several parcels of land that have been proposed for wilderness protection because of their unspoiled nature in the Hatch Wash area south of Moab, in the heart of Utah’s redrock country.
Of note, recent federal court and Interior Board of Land Appeals decisions have overturned several Utah BLM lease sales. In August 2006, Utah federal district court judge Dale Kimball ruled in SUWA’s favor and overturned Utah BLM’s November 2003 lease sale – a decision that has had profound impacts on BLM’s leasing program across the west. Also, from 2004 to 2007, the IBLA overturned several other Utah BLM lease sales involving sensitive public lands.
Like most Western states, Utah has a surplus of BLM lands that have been leased for oil and gas development but are not in production, as well as a surplus of approved drilling permits (known as APDs). For example, at the end of fiscal year 2005 there were just over 4.1 million acres of BLM managed lands in Utah under lease, but less than 1 million acres in production. In addition, from January 2001 through December 2006, the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining approved 7,131 permits to drill new oil and gas wells in Utah. At the end of December 2006, there were 3,044 approved drill permits from that six-year period that had not yet been drilled. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and other conservation groups have challenged only a handful of drilling projects – roughly one percent – during this period.
The conservation coalition – comprised of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and The Wilderness Society – has called on Utah BLM State Director Selma Sierra not to lease these sensitive lands.