A potash drill rig near Hatch Point in Greater Canyonlands. © Neal Clark/SUWA.

A Landscape in Peril


The landscape surrounding Canyonlands National Park is one of the largest roadless areas in the lower 48 states and one of the last untouched frontiers of the West. It also serves as the primary watershed upon which more than 30 million Americans rely. Yet it is both politically and environmentally imperiled.

The Sagebrush Rebellion lives on in some parts of Utah and an outspoken group of elected officials believes the state should take possession of all federal lands and leave the American public out of the discussion. In March 2012, Utah Governor Gary Herbert signed state legislation demanding the federal government relinquish 28 million acres by 2014, an idea that is opposed by many Utah citizens because of what it would mean for public lands, including the Greater Canyonlands area.

Proponents of the state land grab unabashedly promote state control of federal lands as a way to facilitate increased dirty energy development, privatization of public lands, and avoidance of federal environmental regulations.

“Oil-Land in the Sky”

Drilling operations near Big Flat. © Tim Peterson
Drilling operations near Big Flat. © Tim Peterson

The oil boom is changing the character of the town of Moab and the entrance to the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands and Dead Horse Point State Park with vastly increased heavy truck traffic, dust, noise and the sight and smells of drilling.

The area just outside the parks has now been dubbed “Oil land in the Sky” by locals.

Wildcat Operators Drilling in Greater Canyonlands. © Tim Peterson.
Wildcat Operators Drilling in Greater Canyonlands. © Tim Peterson.

Wildcat operators are already at work on Hatch Point in Greater Canyonlands. The well shown above was drilled in summer 2013 on state land surrounded by BLM lands that are presently being managed as a “Special Recreation Management Area”–which is clearly an insufficient level of protection.

Tar Sands Strip Mining

The White Canyon “special tar sands area.” © Tim Peterson
The White Canyon “special tar sands area.” © Tim Peterson

The “Tar Sands Triangle,” encompassing 200 square miles, is located in southeast Utah between Colorado and Dirty Devil Rivers.

Energy companies hold leases for tar sands strip mining on over 90,000 acres in this area. The leases are located inside Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and also border on Canyonlands National Park and existing BLM wilderness study areas.

This spectacular remote and rugged landscape of high mesas, deep canyons, and vertical cliffs is inappropriate for heavy industrial development and destruction by strip mining. Any commitment of land and water resources to this greenhouse-gas-intensive form of energy development would threaten water quality and quantity in the Upper Colorado River Basin. Commercial tar sands strip mining here would end water security for millions of downstream users in Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, Los Angeles, San Diego, Mexico, and other places in the arid West relying on the Colorado River.

Utah’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Mining gave its final approval in January 2013 to a Canadian corporation for the first-in-the-U.S, commercial tar sands strip mining operation at PR Springs in the Book Cliffs near Moab.

Tar sands deposits in Utah are inferior in quality and composition to those in Alberta, Canada, and will require more investment of energy to extract the bitumen. The experimental development process, which uses a citrus-based solvent to liquefy the bitumen, will determine if extraction is economically feasible; the extraction process is far more energy-intensive and destructive than conventional oil production.

The White Canyon “special tar sands area” is too rich in cultural resources and scenery to be developed for high carbon fuels. A Greater Canyonlands National Monument would prevent such reckless development.

Potash Mining

Hatch Point is also under pressure from potash developers. SITLA approved 5 exploration wells which have been drilled; BLM has approved 5 more which await drilling. If developed, the region would be crisscrossed with new roads, pipelines, a warehouse-sized “drying building” and new electric and gas infrastructure – all in what is now a designated BLM Special Recreation Management Area.

Labyrinth Canyon. © Ray Bloxham/SUWA.
Labyrinth Canyon. © Ray Bloxham/SUWA.

BLM has also approved potash exploration in the area above Labyrinth Canyon of the Green River, within Greater Canyonlands.

A new national monument here would stop the leasing and development of a resource-abundant elsewhere.

All of these developments could pose grave threats to the water supply of 40 million Americans, both directly through pollution and indirectly by exacerbating global warming. Visit our climate and water page to learn more.

Share on:

Leave a Comment