The United States Bureau of Land Management (or “BLM”) is currently considering the sale of two oil and gas leases in the Dry Creek area, in and around Virgin, Utah, that include the original Red Bull Rampage event site. We first ran the story here
This opens up all sorts of thorny questions. On one hand, we all use energy. You are reading this right now courtesy of electricity...the source of which came from somewhere
and had some impact on the environment. We drive cars. We heat our homes. We, in other words, demand energy.
Would it be hypocritical to oppose energy extraction on this particular parcel simply because doing so might obliterate a place that's part of mountain bike history and near and dear to many riders? On the other hand, should we simply continue green lighting new energy leases when there are so many already in existence that are not being utilized to their fullest? And beyond that, we've seen the kind of air pollution and ground water contamination that's resulted from other leases. Should we risk that in a place that's on the doorstep to a National Park? Should we be concerned about the health of the residents of Virgin, Utah or should we simply consider that those leases might bring more jobs to the area?
Thorny questions indeed.
Several organizations have stepped into the fray
to advocate against the potential leases...including one group that's arguing that this chunk of dirt played an important role in mountain bike history and is still home to trails that draw riders to test themselves. That group is the Sierra Club. Yes, that
Sierra Club--the one that stopped receiving invitations for Christmas dinner from many mountain bikers way back in 1984 when the group played a role in banning mountain biking in Wilderness areas. Why is the Sierra Club getting involved? Do they really have mountain bikers' interests at heart here? What's their take on this whole issue? I spoke to Ryan Dunfee, the Sierra Club's Addup Community Manager, who also happens to be a mountain biker and the former Managing Editor at Teton Gravity Research.
Sierra Club Addup Community Manager, Ryan Dunfee, in Moab, Utah. Photo courtesy of Rob Collier.
There’s some confusion right now about the nature of what’s potentially happening with the Rampage site. Some people are under the impression that it’s part of the movement in Congress to sell of public lands for extraction, but that’s not the case here, is it? This is a typical case of the BLM leasing some property to oil and gas companies. Explain, for our readers, how that works…..
This is a typical lease sale for oil and gas exploration... except for the fact that it is literally next door to the major entrance to a National Park. The leases also include lands proposed for Wilderness designation. An oil and gas developer proposed the parcels for lease. In fact, someone has nominated the parcels for a few years. They are probably looking for oil since there is not a natural gas pipeline close by. If they find only gas, they would need to build a pipeline to connect to a transport pipeline.
Are the leases specifically for oil and gas? Do they specify particular extraction processes?
The leases are specifically for oil and gas. The lease does not include permission for any specific form of oil and gas development, but does imply that permission will be granted for development. Once a lease is issued, it is difficult not to issue a drilling permit. Mostly they can put stipulations on the development, such as permitting drilling only at specific times of the year. Let’s get right to the point: Why does this potential leasing of parcels around Virgin matter?
The lease is near the entrance to Zion National Park, and some of the proposed area for leasing includes the existing Flying Monkey DH trail as well as the original Red Bull Rampage venue, which played host to feats that blew the doors off what we thought was possible to do on two wheels, and raised the profile of the sport as a whole to a level not seen in years.
We’re not a sport that puts a lot of a value on our history, but way more than a museum, a place like this actually lets you be a part of that incredible history. Riders from all over make the trip down to Virgin to ride the old venue themselves and see if they can hack it, and I think that’s an incredible thing to be able to do, and part of what makes public lands in this country so rad.
Also, a portion of the parcels being considered for lease includes lands that are considered to be in a natural condition and to possess wilderness characteristics. There is no pipeline for moving any oil or gas from the lease site, so it will have to be trucked to a processing location. This will increase heavy truck traffic on the highway into Zion National Park, which is not exactly going to help your journey there convince you that you are entering an area of sacred, protected public lands... which all belong to you as Americans, by the way.
If the BLM goes ahead with selling those leases, what is the likelihood that trails like Flying Monkey will be destroyed and/or access to riding closed off?
The answer depends on how much development happens in the area and whether or not there are additional leases in the future. The leases are good for 20 years, but the clock can be stopped for a large number of reasons. There are leases in place that are much older than 20 years. If oil is found the lease is good until the oil is depleted or no longer pumped.
It is possible that mountain bike trails could be re-routed to accommodate the roads that large drilling rigs and tanker trucks will need to access well pads. The roads to I-15 or south to Kanab will see a tremendous increase in tanker trucks depending on the direction the oil is trucked, which beyond their aesthetic impact for visiting tourists, will undoubtedly be a much bigger pain for the locals that actually live there.
And, if you’ve ever ridden Mag 7 in Moab, you were probably surprised and maybe a bit unsettled to start your journey into the epic desert backcountry start alongside a bunch of oil and gas platforms, so there’s that to consider too. One of the comments that frequently appears in our forums is that we humans all use these natural resources—to heat our homes, fuel our cars, etc.—and that protesting the extraction of oil and gas on these parcels is just hypocritical. Our energy, in short, has to come from somewhere… How do you respond to that line of reasoning?
To give some perspective, there are literally, today, almost a million acres of public land
in Utah that are already under lease for oil and gas development and which aren’t even being drilled. As well, oil and gas exploration in the state is at a 30-year low
. So my response would be: yes, oil and gas are still a sizable part of our economy and day-to-day lives, but in this specific case, when there’s so much land that’s already available for drilling, and yet so little of it is getting drilled, why do we need to add these specific parcels -- which are steps away from Utah’s most popular National Park and an incredible venue for downhill riding -- to that pile?
I empathize with the impulse to consider a campaign like this selective hypocrisy, but none of us live lives of black and white. Does getting a plastic bag at the grocery store, or buying a new carbon trail bike, mean you can’t be outwardly concerned about climate change or natural resource exploitation? Of course not.
I think the question in this case is a bit simpler: yes, currently, oil and gas has to come from somewhere -- but does it need to come from the original Rampage venue right on the edge of Zion National Park? If you don’t think so, then tell the BLM
. I believe you could be a full-time roughneck and get behind this campaign if you don’t believe this particular area is appropriate for drilling.
Photo by Matt DeLorme
A number of our readers have also stated that they were confident that, since these are federal lands we’re talking about, drilling or fracking would surely be done in a way that doesn’t lead to any negative outcome—i.e., excessive air pollution or groundwater contamination. Your thoughts?
It is hard to know for sure what problems could come from development. There has been a legal challenge to stricter controls on fracking -- and certainly the Trump administration hopes and plans to loosen the rules for all kinds of fossil fuel development -- and that means there is some uncertainty about the ability of the federal government to control fracking. Not to mention the impact of increased heavy truck traffic in the area, the potential for water pollution in a very dry area dependent on a select few sources of clean water, and the degradation in the quality of life for local residents and of the experience of visitors, who’d be forced to view gas flares and pump jacks while biking in the area or hiking around Zion.
And, on the macro scale, it’s 2017: we can’t just be talking about the impact of oil and gas exploitation as only a local issue. 2016 broke temperature records (again), and it’s pretty obvious that climate change does not get better by pulling more oil and gas out of the ground.
The Sierra Club has a rocky relationship with mountain bikers. I know that plenty of Sierra Club staffers ride bikes and that a significant number of riders are still members of the Club. That said, the Sierra Club has engendered a good deal of ill will with riders because of their opposition to mountain biking in federally-designated Wilderness areas within the United States. Given the bad blood, why should riders believe the Sierra Club has the interests of mountain bikers in mind on this issue?
I’m glad you brought this up. After years of working in the action sports world and then getting a job with the Sierra Club, all my bike friends were messaging me on Facebook, saying, “The Sierra Club?!? Better get them to quit hating on bikes!”
The Sierra Club is one of a few organizations that advocated for the Wilderness Act. The Wilderness Act possesses a special meaning to the Sierra Club, and I think when bikes were kicked out in the ‘80s, it was a different time, both in terms of what the Sierra Club stood for, who it represented, and how strong mountain bikers were as a contingent of the population, especially an organized, political one; I’m not sure IMBA had even been founded yet. However, right now, it is far easier for us to attempt to satisfy diverse users of the land in developing new wilderness legislation than to change the meaning of Wilderness.
While I am personally bummed at some of the epic riding that has been eliminated because of wilderness designation, particularly the Boulder-White Clouds area in Idaho, wilderness-designated areas are a relatively small slice of the public lands pie and often far away from where people actually live. I think the better challenge for the Sierra Club and other conservation organizations is to help preserve more land for mountain biking overall. I think, with 600 full-time staff and chapters in every state, there’s a lot of variation of how mountain biking is approached within the Sierra Club, and I have no doubt comments will follow this piece from folks who’ve had frustrating interactions with the Club before.
However, I’m encouraged by how the organization is progressing as a whole with regards to biking. I was in an all-staff meeting the other day and, to show off how cool some of the recent conservation wins have been, one of the staff played a POV clip from him absolutely mobbing down some trails near Lake Tahoe that had recently been protected for recreation use on his Bronson. That’s really encouraging to me, and the support I received to get this specific campaign in Virgin up and running was unilateral.
So yeah, me being the new guy in the office with my Following and knee pads does not wash away the bad blood, but I think this campaign is a very small step towards working towards progress people who dork around on expensive non-motorized toys can be psyched on.
The BLM says they are “considering” leasing these parcels, but the general vibe on their site suggests that the agency is fairly committed to going ahead and selling these gas and oil leases. Am I mistaken in my reading of the BLM’s intent? Are they truly on the fence or are these leases a foregone conclusion?
The BLM language is typical of all proposed leases. Part of the mission of the BLM is developing natural resources, and they are supposed to base their decision on multiple considerations such as other competing values such as recreation, wildlife, water, etc. This has often been characterized the most benefit for the most people. This is a difficult guide to use, since there are many benefits that are difficult to quantify. It’s also worth noting that not all resources have to be developed everywhere.
They do have regulations concerning visual resources, water resources, and air quality, but these are pretty loose in what can be considered reasonable impacts to resources. Generally, when they look at development of an oil field, they measure the impacts only to the actual oil drilling and pumping pad, roads, pipelines, etc. They look at these as though the impact is confined to the immediate footprint of the pad, road, etc. This is not a good or valid way of looking at impacts, as we already discussed the impact of added heavy truck traffic to the local quality of life, the impact of oil and gas infrastructure on the experience at Zion, and, again, climate change.
So, there is still some time (until February 10th) for readers to log in their input with the BLM—either yea or nay—on the sale. How do you recommend that readers put their best foot forward in making their opinions clear to the BLM?
First, I’d ask riders to add their names to our petition
, which focuses on the impact of this proposed oil and gas lease on the broader mountain biking community. We’ll be submitting that for the February 10th public comment period deadline, so jump on it! Once you’ve had a chance to do that, the next most important thing you could do is share that with your friends.
If you’ve been to the area personally, the next thing you can do is fill out your own public comment
(click “Comment on Document”) and describe your relationship with the area. If you’ve visited Zion National Park, ridden Gooseberry Mesa, Virgin, Hurricane, Flying Monkey, or the old Rampage venue, tell the BLM what that experience was like and what it meant to you. Remember that this is YOUR land -- the BLM is responsible to you when it makes decisions. Public opposition does help in stopping leases. If nothing else, public opposition provides political cover for making a decision against leasing. Is there anything else that readers can do to make their voices known on this issue?
It is always good to write your members of Congress -- your representative
- or call their offices to express your concerns about issues like these. If they weigh in with the BLM, that makes a huge difference.