Conservation Groups, Forest Service Agree to Strengthen Fracking Safeguards for 1.7 Million Acres of So Utah National Forests
Protections Tightened for Clean Air, Sage Grouse, Rare Plants and Roadless Areas
Mary O’Brien, Grand Canyon Trust (435) 259-6205
Joro Walker, Western Resource Advocates (801) 487-9911
Salt Lake City, UT—A coalition of conservation groups reached a resolution agreement with the Forest Service that will save imperiled wildlife and plants and keep clean air clean, and safeguard 1.7 million acres from damaging oil and gas drilling. The deal covers the Fishlake and a portion of the Dixie National Forests, and is the product of conservationists’ appeal of the Forest Service’s oil and gas leasing plan. The agreement covers all National Forest lands in south-central Utah from Boulder Town and Boulder Mountain west of Capitol Reef N.P. to the Tushar Mountains east of Beaver, north to the mountains surrounding the communities of Richfield, Fillmore, Salina, Loa, Bicknell, and Torrey.
“This is a win-win agreement for Sage grouse and other sensitive wildlife that count on these undeveloped sky-island National Forests … and for our own communities’ healthy clean air future,” said Kevin Mueller, Utah-Southern Rockies Conservation Manager for WildEarth Guardians. “We’re thrilled we found a place for agreement with the Forest Service that constructively set tighter standards for protection from oil and gas fracking.”
Finalized in late January of 2014, the agreement secures two major victories. First, it cements a Forest Service plan to keep oil and gas development out of 1.3 million acres of the Fishlake and a portion of Dixie National Forests in southern Utah. Second, it steps up protections for rare and imperiled plants and wildlife, including the sage grouse, as well as for archaeological resources, water and air quality. Finally, the deal has a commitment to withdraw 4 Research Natural Areas from mineral entry.
“With this agreement, the Forest Service completes its effort to place controls on oil and gas activities in the Fishlake and Dixie National Forests so that sensitive plants, wildlife, water, and air will not be subject to degradation through loopholes or vague wording,” observed Mary O’Brien, Utah Forests Program Director for Grand Canyon Trust.
The Fishlake and Dixie National Forests are the headlands of southern Utah’s canyon country. This rugged mountain country crowns the Grand Staircase and is the headwaters for iconic southwest rivers, including the Escalante, Fremont, Dirty Devil, and Sevier. More than 75% of this Forest region is unroaded and undeveloped, qualifying for protection under the Wilderness Act of 1964.
In August of 2013, the Forest Service opened the entire Fishlake and a portion of the Dixie National Forests for drilling and fracking. Although “no surface occupancy” would have been required on 1.3 million acres, effectively prohibiting development, the plan’s numerous exemptions and loopholes would have rendered it ineffectual. Additionally, there would be only limited restrictions on the remaining 400,000 acres, an area approximately 625 square miles in size.
Under the Forest Service’s plan, an estimated 73 oil and gas wells would have been drilled and 166 miles of roads built, largely on the edges of southern Utah’s canyon country and adjacent to iconic destinations such as Capitol Reef and the Fish Lake.
And even with “no surface occupancy” requirements, the Forest Service projected that streams would be degraded, air quality standards violated, and unroaded lands jeopardized.
“The half a million people that visit the Fishlake each year can thank the Forest Service for developing a plan to better protect wildlife, scenic vistas, and air and water quality.” says Joro Walker, attorney for Western Resource Advocates.
In December of 2013, WildEarth Guardians, Grand Canyon Trust, and Western Resource Advocates filed an administrative appeal of the Forest Service’s plan. Aiming to tie up the loopholes and strengthen protections across the forest, the appeal identified a number of legal shortcomings.
The agreement finalized in January resolves the appeal, ensures compliance with federal law, and strengthens the protections originally adopted by the Forest Service. Ultimately, the agreement assures that oil and gas drilling and fracking will not occur at the expense of the Fishlake and Dixie National Forests.
Read the resolution agreement here.