Viewpoint: Utah wilderness is worth protecting

Imagine one of Utah’s most beautiful well-kept wilderness secrets, the San Rafael Swell, turning into a sad, muddy and oily mess. If the Bureau of Land Management has its way, a network of pipelines and oil tankers will scar 80 percent of the area.

The San Rafael Swell is one of the most spectacular displays of geology in the country, and the federal government plans to lease nearly 80,000 acres of it for oil drilling and development.

While the BLM plans to lease 55 parcels of land at an auction scheduled for Nov. 19, local and national groups of outdoor enthusiasts and industry representatives have already begun to protest the proposed drilling.

A group of about 200 people met outside the BLM’s office in Salt Lake City last week to peacefully protest the “drill, baby, drill” attitude of the BLM. Among the group of protesters were some members of the Sierra Club, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and eve the CEO of Black Diamond Equipment, Utah’s own maker of climbing backpacking and skiing equipment.

Not only is the San Rafael Swell home to rare plant species and golden eagles, but it also contains ancient Native American rock art and petroglyphs. Surrounded by canyons, mesas, buttes and gorges, the Swell is one of Utah’s best outdoor playgrounds. International tourists and locals can enjoy camping, biking, rock climbing, canoeing and sightseeing there.

The feds’ decision to lease this area of prime Utah wilderness for gas and oil development will not only jeopardize the ancient artifacts and habitat for the critters; it will also affect Utah’s booming outdoor industry, which is boosting our economy.

While it would be ideal for Utah to remain mostly untouched by the gas and oil industry’s destructive hand, this is unrealistic as our dependency on these products continues. But surveying and careful decision-making processes need to happen before parcels of land are just leased away for drilling.

Utah’s wilderness is undervalued, especially when lawmakers and special interest groups haven’t done more to protect this area from development. Designating this nearly untouched area as a national park, national conservation area or as a protected wilderness area would keep it safe from future land-grabs and leasing.

Look at parts of Canada and the U.S. that have been devastated due to fracking, oil drilling, tar sand mining and other developments. The land never returns to its original splendor and natural beauty, which is worth keeping. Utah’s unique and natural land characteristics are iconic and make our community great.

We think the wilderness is precious and worth protecting. The San Rafael Swell is the wrong place to drill, especially since the BLM doesn’t even know how much oil, if any, can be recovered from the land.