Originally appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune on November 13th, 2020
We live in a place where public lands are key to our livelihood. Water, air quality, food, our history and recreation — Utah’s public lands are ingrained in our way of life. So as members of the public, it’s our job to hold the agencies and governments who manage those lands accountable.
Recently, the Bureau of Land Management announced it is prepared to allow a new helium drilling operation in the Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness Area — a spectacular stretch of redrock terrain that includes a remote section of the Green River that is, by the BLM’s own description, one of the premier flatwater canoe trips in the country.
As the former director of the John Wesley Powell River History Museum in Green River, I can’t stand to see a place like this diminished in that way. For thousands of years, this area has been a place of refuge and sustenance for untold communities. It has been a home, a garden and a sanctuary. The BLM should reverse course on this lease before it’s too late.
I remember my toddling daughter laying in my arms during my first trip through Labyrinth. She was lulled to sleep by the solitude of the canyon as our friends guided us through the human history that’s literally written on the walls. Since then, I’ve taken many more trips through “Labby” and explored the surrounding country. I’ve spent countless hours retracing the path of explorers, authors, homesteaders and river runners through a seemingly endless open landscape.
Thousands of Utahns and tourists admire this corner of Utah’s redrock every year. A trip through Labyrinth is one of the most accessible river trips in the West, making it a well-known adventure for Scouting groups and young families. Altogether, tens of thousands of locals and tourists have enjoyed the solitude of these wildlands.
Now the BLM wants to ruin that experience with well pad construction, pipelines, a nearby processing facility and roads where legally none is supposed to exist.
What’s worse is that this place has already been protected. In 2019, Congress passed the Dingell Act, a bipartisan and sweeping public lands package that created the Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness Area, including the river and the surrounding wildlands in its protection.
The bill was promoted by local officials and Emery County commissioners. It was sponsored by Rep. John Curtis and lauded by politicians as a new way of solving public land issues in Utah. But just weeks before Congress acted, with full knowledge of the bill and what would be in it, the BLM issued a lease to drill in the heart of that wilderness — an egregious giveaway to the extractive industry. And now, despite a law that clearly protects this land, it is prepared to move forward with that lease.
With the public comment period now closed and the BLM racing to give the green light to private industry, our best hope is that a Biden administration can put a stop to this project. The president-elect has his hands full, but this is a worthy cause that deserves attention.
As a rural museum director, I once worked on the water’s edge. It was my job to bring the river’s story to life. The river has helped shape me, and I’ve helped countless others discover its magic. The Labyrinth Canyon area remains unchanged to time, except for the wind and water that move at their own pace. It deserves the protection it has been afforded by law.