BLM says draft Master Leasing Plan will soon be available for public comment
by Molly Marcello Staff Writer
During an air tour of area public lands, Ashley Korenblat, local tour company owner and managing director of the nonprofit group Public Land Solutions, studies a map showing lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that will be subject to a new Master Leasing Plan (MLP). The plan will govern new oil, gas, and potash leases in areas of Grand and northern San Juan counties. Korenblat has advocated that the recreation industry — which has several key areas of interest in the MLP zone — be considered during the planning process. BLM officials said the MLP will soon be released for public comment. Photo by Molly Marcello
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will soon release its new Master Leasing Plan (MLP) — a document for public comment that will guide local public lands planning 15 years into the future. Although the MLP specifically makes decisions regarding new leases for oil, gas and potash development, BLM officials say they have treated the recreation industry — whose representatives identified many regions of interest within the 900,000-plus-acre planning area — as a key resource in their analyses.
One Moab resident who has been working to ensure the recreation industry has had that input in the MLP process is Ashley Korenblat, a local business owner and managing director of the Moab-based nonprofit group Public Land Solutions.
“The conservation movement has a lot of laws and rules to meet the goals of conservation. Oil and gas has lots of laws and rules to meet the goals of exploration for oil and gas. Recreation has been kind of a stepchild,” Korenblat said. “We don’t have enough laws or rules to protect recreation assets.”
Korenblat says that while previous land management decisions made by Moab BLM staff have allowed the local recreation economy to develop and grow, planning documents like the MLP could now ensure that those recreation resources are protected.
“Our Moab BLM recreation team was deferring important [mineral extraction] leases based on their discretion because they knew it was going to be a problem to drill next to Arches ... [but] their deferrals of those leases were based on their discretion,” Korenblat said. “We realized we need more standing.”
The MLP area encompasses most of Grand County south of Interstate 70, including areas surrounding Arches National Park and the northern and eastern sides of Canyonlands National Park in San Juan County.
BLM officials say there is high interest in much of the area from companies that would like to lease land for oil, gas and potash exploration. The BLM has recently received more than 170 potash prospecting permit applications encompassing over 350,000 acres and the oil and gas industry has also expressed interest in leasing more than 120,000 acres, according to information provided by the BLM.
Last week, during a tour by airplane of some of the lands included in the MLP area, Korenblat pointed out the wide range of public lands interests located adjacent to another — the White Rim Trail for mountain biking and off-road use, the Intrepid Potash mine site, and various oil well drilling sites operated by Fidelity Exploration and Production.
“You think, ‘oh there’s plenty of room out there’ but when you look out there you see that there’s not — the space is a finite resource,” Korenblat said. “It’s a big space but it’s still only so big. A lot of people say ‘it’s plenty big, we can share.’ Well, we can do that if we plan really well.”
Kalen Jones, a Moab City Council candidate who is also involved with Public Land Solutions, was also on the Aug. 3 tour. He said the MLP’s comprehensive planning process could accommodate the sometimes divergent public lands uses.
“I think the MLP is important because landscape-level planning can better accommodate different, sometimes incompatible, uses. Much as city and county zoning keeps commercial and industrial uses separate from residential, the MLP could protect our valuable recreational, scenic, and ecological assets, while still allowing mineral development in appropriate areas,” Jones said. “It may also push more well pads onto SITLA [state School and Institutional Trust Land Administration] lands, which could access BLM leases with horizontal drilling, reduce the dispersion of impacts and result in higher revenues for Utah schools.”
In order to facilitate better planning during an MLP comment period last year, Public Land Solutions spearheaded a stakeholder meeting that brought together diverse interests, ranging from environmental organizations to mineral extraction companies.
“We had a month-long process where we met and the doors were open to everybody,” Korenblat said. “Both extremes were represented. The Sierra Club said, ‘Everywhere is habitat for somebody and the oil should stay in the ground,’ and the wildcat oil and gas guys said, ‘There could be [oil and gas] resources anywhere, we should be able to drill wherever.’ And we said, ‘OK, we need to sort this out. We’re not going to close it all, but we’re not going to open it all, so we need to figure it out.’”
According to Korenblat, those meetings resulted in a stakeholder report that was forwarded to the BLM. The report identified certain compromises that were agreed to by the various interests represented at the meeting, she said.
Noting that the MLP drafting process has benefited from such stakeholder involvement, Moab’s BLM Field Office Manager Beth Ransel said the organization released a preliminary range of alternatives for public feedback last year – a step not required by the federal agency.
“The soon-to-be-released MLP has benefitted from robust public and cooperating agency involvement,” Ransel said. “As an extra public outreach effort, the BLM proactively released the preliminary range of alternates for public feedback. Taking this extra step to gather public input has had a substantial influence on the MLP.”
Grand County Council Member Jaylyn Hawks – who also participated in the flight over the MLP area last week — said good planning for the landscape’s limited resources requires cooperation, especially between the BLM and Grand County.
“The Moab landscape from the plane was spectacular and vast. At the same time it became more apparent that it is a finite resource — it is not an unlimited commodity,” Hawks said. “Since the vast amount of land in Grand County is federal, it is critical that we partner with BLM in updating the Master Leasing Plan. A cooperative partnership that builds a collaborative plan going forward will do far more for the people who live here than will an adversarial ‘us versus them’ attitude.”
Grand County Council member Lynn Jackson told The Times-Independent this week that mineral development is important to the local economy and he hopes the MLP will reflect a balanced approach to managing area public lands.
“[The MLP] will allow [the BLM] to get moving again, to get some oil, gas, and potash leases issued out there and have the revenue that comes with it,” Jackson said. “Hopefully, another thing that comes out of the MLP is some responsible and reasonable ways to allow the utilization of both of the resources out there — recreation and oil and gas.”
In addition to the draft MLP, draft amendments to the agency’s resource management plans for Moab and Monticello and a draft environmental impact statement will soon be released by the BLM for a 90-day public review and comment period. BLM representatives said that in the time since the original resource management plans were completed in 2008, the agency has developed a different leasing process that involves additional planning and environmental analysis for areas that have a high potential for resource conflicts.
BLM Canyon Country District Manager Lance Porter said he hopes the public will comment on the new plans.
“The BLM is excited to be approaching this important milestone in the MLP process and encourages citizens who have an interest in the public lands within the planning area to participate in the process by commenting on the upcoming MLP,” Porter said.
While the draft MLP is not yet ready for public view, it will be available on the BLM’s website. The preliminary draft alternatives and other related documents can currently be reviewed online at: blm.gov/ut/st/en/fo/moab/MLP.html.