A visit to Hatch Point is a must for any visitor to the Canyonlands area. The stunning redrock cliffs and mesas that make up this area south of Moab are some the region’s most admired landmarks.
But like the destruction that would have resulted at Hatch Point had President Bush’s last minute give-away leases to the oil and gas industry not been thrown out by the courts two year ago, this beautiful but unprotected area is now targeted by another extractive industry--potash mining.
As we learned earlier this year, Utah’s State Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) is proposing a land exchange with the Bureau of Land Management in which they would acquire up to eighty square miles, or more than 51,000 acres, in and around the Hatch Point area. Roughly two-thirds of that land would be made available for a large scale potash mining operation, and the rest would be leased for oil and gas development, according to the latest information.
The entire issue of a land swap has been precipitated by a proposal to mine potash in this area by a company known as K2O Utah LLC, a company that is 90% owned by an Australian firm known as Potash Minerals Limited.
A recent article in the Moab Sun News detailed some of the company’s plans, including the company’s speculation that they could harvest roughly two million metric tons of potash per year and that operations would continue for 25-50 years over an area encompassing a total of 100,000 acres.
Currently K2O has several test wells on SITLA parcels in the Hatch Point area and recently submitted an application to the Bureau of Land Management for five additional test wells. That application has not been approved as of this writing but it’s important to note that the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Sierra Club, Grand Canyon Trust and National Parks Conservation Association recently submitted comments to the BLM opposing any more test wells.
Since most of the land under consideration for this project is currently owned and managed by the BLM, allowing the lands to be leased for mining will largely fall under the direction of the agency’s master leasing plan, or MLP, which is currently being developed by the Moab BLM field office. The MLP process is part of a package of leasing reforms ordered by the BLM in 2010 as a way to increase public participation and allow for a more thorough environmental analysis of such mining projects.
The MLP for the Moab field office is not expected to be finalized until 2014, during which time there will opportunities for Sierra Club members to express their concerns about this project and others.
In the meantime, SITLA has proposed the land exchange as a way to expedite the availability of some of these lands in order to allow K20 to get their project under way possibly sooner. Like other such land exchanges in the past, SITLA would receive title to those BLM-owned lands in and around Hatch Point while the BLM would receive ownership of SITLA lands elsewhere.
It goes without saying that, compared to federally-owned lands, SITLA has fewer if any protocols for minimizing environmental damage on its lands. And it is no secret that SITLA has one mission: to lease or sell lands to the highest bidder with little regard for what happens afterwards. Within that context, it makes much more sense to keep lands within the ownership of the BLM if at all possible if conservation is one’s main goal. At least most actions by the BLM require some type of public process mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act.
In the larger context, what does a proposed land swap for the Hatch Point and Canyonlands area mean for conservation in the region? It depends on what kind of land trade can be agreed upon. If even portions of the Hatch Point area are given up for lease or sale to be used for potash mining, particularly at the scale that is being proposed, it’s reasonable to speculate that they would eventually be transformed into industrial zones, with pipelines, buildings, new roads and increased truck traffic. This transformation would spoil landscapes and viewsheds, worsen air quality, possibly impact water quality for local communities, and cause negative impacts to wildlife and habitat, to name a few.
On the other hand, there are many SITLA-owned parcels around the Greater Canyonlands area that could be traded to the BLM, including those in the tar sands triangle area near the confluence of the Dirty Devil and Colorado rivers.
Perhaps even better, the conservation community and the public could simply draw a line in the sand by not letting any lands be swapped around Hatch Point, but instead persuading the agencies to pursue lands elsewhere that are more suited for extractive activities.
Hatch Point is part of a larger BLM-managed special recreation management area, which in and of itself is not conducive to large-scale mining and industrial activities. Driving that point home even deeper is the fact that part of this area also lies within the proposed America’s Redrock Wilderness Act, endorsed by the Sierra Club.
Finally, it is worth noting that this region also lies within the larger Greater Canyonlands National Monument, a new monument proposal that recently gained nationwide notoriety after the Outdoor Industry Association submitted a letter to President Obama asking for a designation of the area under the authority of the Antiquities Act.
What this all spells out is that the future of Hatch Point is quite uncertain and very complicated. It is absolutely necessary, however, for readers to understand that this region is of unparalleled beauty, one that deserves permanent protection in some form or another. That is a message that the Sierra Club and our members will continue to take to the table as discussions proceed on the issue. Please stay tuned for further alerts and information regarding this delicate process. And don’t hesitate to contact the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club to find out how you can get involved in saving Hatch Point and our amazing redrock wilderness.