A Batch Of Uintas Issues
As wide-ranging and disparate as they may be, it’s time to tie some ends together. While we have written about oil and gas leasing many times in THE LYNX, here is another. Early in September the Ashley National Forest released a scoping notice initiating the Environmental Impact Statement for the proposal from Berry Petroleum to drill up to 400 oil and gas wells within a 26,000 acre area of the South Unit. This is not the South Slope of the Uintas, but the disjunct unit between Duchesne and Price that is often referred to as the Tavaputs Plateau. The unit consists of 204,500 acres (about ten roadless areas rest on the landscape, accounting for about 154,000 acres).
This proposal would largely occur between Sowers Canyon and Left Fork Antelope Canyon, and would require at least 100 miles of new roads, considerable development of roadless acreage, and upgrading of at least 21 miles of existing roads! Each well would require 2.5 acres of surface disturbance, and a huge swath of land which would be roaded and even more deeply fragmented with a loss of silence, naturalness, and a complete change of context to an industrial park.
Of course, there is no guarantee that Forest Service will allow all 400 wells, but the context of potential development is mind-bending. There has been some oil and gas drilling in a few places already; it is grazed extensively and Highway 191 runs through the area, along with numerous other ridge roads. It is heavily used by ATVs. While much of the area is undeveloped and it is not an icon of wildness, the context of the area is a massive National Forest landscape, geologically unique, geographically isolated and dominated by a backdrop of primitive conditions.
How is it possible such a proposal could develop? Easy, actually. The Ashley National Forest years ago simply allowed much of this area to be leased, arguing that leasing conveys no actual environmental impacts, that all would be evaluated in a future document, and that future forest planning would reconsider the decision anyway. All of this was over the objections of conservationists who argued that leasing is not simply a paper transaction, that leases convey and result directly in development, and any future environmental document or forest plan will be tiered and tied to the leases on the ground, rather than determining leasing or development.
The desired condition on the Ashley’s South Unit in the new forest planning process, by the way-- and contrary to past indications-- is to allow oil and gas leasing and development, just as we predicted decades ago! In other words, the Ashley is not exactly a good land steward, passing the leasing and development issue(s) from one generation to the next, always arguing impacts will come at some other time, and convincing itself that this is no big deal!
The oil and gas companies are certainly not innocent as they lease willy-nilly thousands of acres of land regardless of whether the lands are suited to development and doing everything conceivable to assure real energy conservation issues are never on the table. Their end product is not energy conservation, or even production; it is a big profit on a landscape in which they have no interest and is owned by somebody else-- us!
And then there is “us,” doing very little to reduce this self-induced addiction, even though it is very unlikely any discovery here will add years, let alone days, maybe only hours, to our daily use!
On the South Unit this started with the Forest Service simply ignoring a meaningful analysis and allowing lease after lease after lease to go forward, kidding themselves and deceiving us that this very proposal would turn up someday!
Meanwhile, at the monthly Wasatch-Cache breakfast meeting, we learned much of what is obvious-- Forest Service budgets are declining rapidly, costs going up, and almost every National Forest is faced with serious budget problems far beyond the traditional ‘we just don’t have enough’ so common to all bureaucracies. It is bad enough on the Wasatch that dozens of positions have not been filled over the last few years and seasonal hiring was reduced dramatically. We want to make it clear this is not a result of mismanagement on the Wasatch. To their credit they are willing to share this dilemma, for what is happening here is happening on most forests.
To address the problem, the Wasatch and Uinta National Forests have teamed up to share a single forest supervisor, a single deputy supervisor, and a single district ranger for the Heber and Kamas Ranger Districts. Numerous other changes are to occur over the next few years as this is implemented to reduce fixed costs. But it will come with confusion, anxiety and probably none of the land management efficiency so deeply sought. It will save a number of additional positions, but at the same time will come at a very real personal cost to a district ranger and forest supervisor who will likely be reassigned.
These cuts are typical across the federal government as federal budget deficits spiral out control and more than twelve billion dollars a month is sunk in a brutal and meaningless war.
Moving on. For nearly the last decade, the Forest Service has done everything imaginable to eliminate the formal protection of roadless areas, (the LYNX has covered these issues in detail), to minimize preparation of environmental analysis documents, and to reduce public review and the resulting accountability of those public planning processes. We have followed all of that as well. We have watched as the Forest Service initiated a process to “categorically exclude” most environmental analyses from the National Environmental Policy Act, resulting in document after document with no alternatives analyzed, minimal analysis and restricted public involvement. We have watched dozens of grazing allotments lumped together and authorized, even those in wilderness, using a categorical exclusion that does not even allow an appeal and literally skims over environmental analysis and public involvement. This we have written about extensively. We have watched the Forest Service even propose to do entire forest plans as categorical exclusions... and we watched the courts undue the latter, only to have the agency almost defiantly re-propose the very same regulation!
Back at the proverbial ranch... even though the Forest Service has noted off-road vehicle use presents one of the most significant threats to National Forest integrity, the response on the Ashley National Forest, as only one example, has been to consciously and deliberately increase the opportunities for ORV/ATV use by refusing to close all previous user-created routes, allowing them to be “constructed” in the first place, and then considering them legal routes during a review of the travel management plan. All of this while the Forest admits they have no idea how many of these illegal routes exist, except that they are extensive, and concedes minimal monitoring and enforcement.
It is easy to go on and on. The point is these disparate examples come from an agency that has lots its way-- has allowed itself to get lost. It has always been a political agency-- all government agencies are, can’t help but be! But in today’s hyper-political world the Forest Service stutters badly, yammering about the need and its promise of public input, while diminishing it at every level with almost a grimace. It speaks to the importance of functioning ecosystems and turns its head to roadless area protection. It promises an evaluation of grazing impacts, recognizing grazing is a serious problem, and then authorizes hundreds of allotments, many within designated wilderness, with minimal analysis, public input and pre-determined authorization. It complains about non-native species and where it can actually have an impact-- ending non-native, recreational-based fisheries in wilderness and introduction of non -native mt. goats here in Utah, for example. Yet it proceeds in the past without even a blink of an eye. And with a cheshire grin, it increases the opportunities for off-road and all terrain vehicles! It assures oil and gas development will be a dominant use while either naively or, down right stupidly, promise it won’t! Budgets are then slashed and crumble because there is simply no conservation vision or leadership left to build an agency or a budget on something meaningful or hopeful.
This will change only when the Forest Service, its district rangers and forest supervisors step up and out from under a Washington-driven ideology and assert a conservation vision.
Editor’s note: We can report some good on the Duchesne/ Roosevelt Ranger District on the Ashley National Forest: one more High Uintas Wilderness reservoir has been stabilized. This summer Clements Lake (Brown Duck Basin) was returned to its natural functioning condition. Unfortunately helicopter access was utilized to drop motorized machinery that was unfortunately also used. While we continue to have concerns over the use of mechanized machinery being delivered by helicopter into the High Uintas Wilderness (the reason for this is a requirement placed upon the Forest Service to complete each stabilization project within one single summer season), we are, at least, hopeful that the project is well underway. Water Lily, White Miller, and Farmers Lakes on the Swift Creek and Yellowstone drainages have already been completed with helicopter access being utilized on Water Lily.