Will new fossil fuel plans disfigure Dinosaur National Monument?

Pumpjacks and drill rigs at the edge of a national treasure

by Stephen Nash for The New York Times (adapted)

At remote Dinosaur National Monument, a natural park that straddles the northern Colorado-Utah border, the Bureau of Land Management has recently changed course — part of the Trump administration’s quest for “energy dominance” often cited by the president and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Critics say the shift here is emblematic of changes that will affect a wide range of other parks and monuments, as well as those who visit them.

Dinosaur NM is a rough region of 1,000-foot cliffs and canyons, two wild rivers — the Green and the Yampa — ancient rock art and archaeological evidence of 10,000 years of human history.

The park, which straddles the Utah-Colorado border, affords visitors backcountry camping, white-water rafting and, most famously, spectacular dinosaur fossils. The Bureau of Land Management has announced that in December it will auction gas and oil drilling rights on 94,000 acres, or 146 square miles, of land, some of it near the park’s entrance road.

Pumpjacks, drill rigs and other equipment would be visible from the park’s visitor center, which is 2.5 miles from one lease parcel, according to critics. The B.L.M. has said that equipment would not intrude on the average visitor’s field of view. The agency said it would take steps to minimize visibility, including light shields, noise mufflers and “placement of exhaust systems to direct noise away from noise sensitive areas” and “avoiding unnecessary flaring of gas.”

Ozone pollution from such energy development already exceeds federal Clean Air Act limits in the monument area.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican who supports fossil fuel development on public lands, initially said he worried that the new leases would bring eyesores too close to the park. “The state wishes to ensure leasing of these parcels does not impact visual resources or cause light or sound disturbances,” he said in comments submitted to the B.L.M. in July.

Drawing on his naval service, perhaps, Secretary Zinke told a meeting of oil industry executives in late September that he has to cope with dissension in his own ranks over such policies. “I got 30 percent of the crew that’s not loyal to the flag,” he said in a speech to the American Petroleum Institute. Mr. Zinke compared the Department of the Interior to a pirate ship, apparently helmed by him and Mr. Trump. He lamented that the pirates can capture “a prized ship at sea and only the captain and the first mate row over” to claim the booty.

Some former Interior Department personnel indeed frame their loyalties differently. Mike Murray, who worked as a national park administrator and ranger for 34 years, cited a range of threats to the parks and the visitor experience. In an interview, he called the decision to auction drilling rights at Dinosaur National Monument “indefensible,” part of a new wave of “signs and signals” about the administration’s policy intentions. He is a spokesman for a group of Park Service retirees called the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks.

Interior Department spokeswoman Heather Swift did not respond to several requests for comment. The Vernal, Utah, field office of the B.L.M and the agency’s Salt Lake City and Washington, D.C. offices also declined to comment.

Murray said the Dinosaur case is only one example. The retirees’ group sponsored a letter to the Trump administration signed by 350 former public employees, including many park administrators. It objects to proposed oil and gas leases on federal land that it says are “adjacent or in close proximity” to several other sites: Zion National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, Hovenweep National Monument, and Fort Laramie National Historic Site.

The Dinosaur monument’s pitch-black night skies and silent soundscapes have been protected by the Park Service since its creation in 1915, during Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, Murray said. Visitors will now witness “oil rigs instead of a pristine landscape.” The risk of toxic industrial spills, leaks, and accidents leading to polluted air and water will have arrived along with the energy development opportunity, he added.

The monument’s National Park Service administrators have also expressed concern about dust, night lights, air and water pollution and threats to endangered species. The 330-square-mile, high-desert park is visited by about 300,000 people a year. It was designated a national monument by President Woodrow Wilson in 1915, using powers granted him under the Antiquities Act of 1906.

The new drilling leases pivot away from a policy begun during the administration of Barack Obama, in which the Park Service and the B.L.M. collaborated to avoid visual and environmental impacts from industrial development on public lands near parks. The national monument, administered by the park service, is surrounded by federal public lands administered by the B.L.M. Both agencies are within the Department of the Interior.

“Total priority” on mining and drilling threatens other values, Murray said: “Protecting parks for future generations, allowing park visitors today to have incredible experiences that they’ll remember for a lifetime. Protecting the wildlife and all the other resources that occur in and around national parks.”

“We’re incredibly concerned about the direction that the White House is taking with national parks and public lands” in pursuit of energy development and other goals, Kristen Brengel of the National Parks Conservation Association said in an interview. “We are seeing significant rollbacks of wildlife, drilling, water and conservation policies from prior Republican and Democratic administrations. This is a sea change, and they are taking no prisoners. Even national parks aren’t sacred for this administration.”

David Nimkin, a senior regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association, said in a statement that the planned energy development “has the potential to do harm to Dinosaur National Monument. We cannot keep Dinosaur the wild and wonderful place it is if we allow oil rigs on its borders.”

Some of the leases, he said, “are within the direct view of the park’s Quarry Visitor Center and the world famous Carnegie Fossil Quarry. It would also threaten the health of the Colorado River system and could further reduce air quality at Dinosaur, all while adding intensive industrial traffic to the park’s access road.”

Outdoor-related businesses near the national monument expressed a range of concerns in comment letters filed with the B.L.M. Two mountain biking trade associations said that gas and oil drilling “could also put at risk sensitive water resources and threaten other important values such as clean air, wildlife habitat, cultural resources, recreation viewsheds, and the cultural vitality of rural communities.” The National Outdoor Leadership School, which runs training programs in the area, commented that “lease and subsequent development of these parcels will have a serious impact on the river experience. Any new natural gas wells and related infrastructure on this parcel would likely be within view of the river during construction, and within earshot of the river throughout the life of the wells. Such intrusions will doubtless impinge on the river traveler’s experience and degrade the outstanding values provided by the Green River.”

Mr. Zinke recently completed a review requested by Mr. Trump of large national monuments created by his predecessors — presidents Bush, Clinton and Obama. Mr. Trump had signalled his own intentions, at least, by referring to some of those monuments as “another egregious abuse of federal power,” and a “massive federal land grab” that “should never have happened.”