By Dino Grandoni and Juliet Eilperin
It’s one of the best-known mountain biking trails in the world. But the Trump administration may lease it for oil and natural gas drilling.
A preliminary proposal from the Bureau of Land Management to auction the right to drill under Utah’s Slickrock Trail has left cyclists, residents and even the state’s Republican governor wondering why the Trump administration is considering undercutting what has become a major source of tourism revenue for the region.
For more than half a century, the trail has drawn mountain bikers from around the world eager to ride its undulating and otherworldly sandstone hills.
“It really is the most famous bike trail in the world,” said Ashley Korenblat, chief executive of Western Spirit Cycling, a mountain bike outfitter based in the nearby city of Moab. “It was one of the first places that was really identified as an incredible place to ride a mountain bike.”
The nearly 6,600 acres that could be leased in June in southeast Utahrepresent just a fraction of the millions of acres of federal lands and waters the Trump administration has auctioned to oil and gas drillers in an effort to boost domestic energy production.
But the two proposed parcels in the Sand Flats Recreation Area, which surrounds the 9.6-mile bike trail, have sparked controversy in Utah’s Grand County even before the federal government starts accepting comments Thursday. The BLM has not yet finalized the list of parcels to be included in the June auction. And if offered, the two Sand Flats parcels would come with a stipulation requiring the lease holder to find a suitable location on nearby state-owned or private land from which to horizontally drill for the fossil fuels.
Trump ally and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert is asking the BLM to defer leasing the two parcels, one of which would cover over 60 percent of the trail itself. “The Governor appreciates the unique beauty of the Slickrock area and wants to ensure that nothing is done that would be detrimental to the visitor experience or local water quality,” Herbert spokeswoman Anna Lehnardt said in a statement Tuesday.
“There are so many, many parcels in Grand County that have been leased for oil and gas that have not yet been developed,” Niehaus said. The five-member Moab City Council passed a resolution last month opposing leasing the two parcels in the Sand Flats.
Now those outside the county are taking notice. A group of 80 outdoors companies, including Clif Bar and the backpack makers Kelty and Dakine, wrote in a letter to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt that inclusion of the Slickrock Trail in the oil and gas auction was “an astounding move that threatens one of the most iconic recreation experiences in the country.”
In a statement Tuesday, BLM’s Moab field manager Nicollee Gaddis-Wyatt said the agency understands “that the public has concerns about some of the parcels that are currently under internal consideration” for the June lease sale.
“We are committed to supporting recreation and protecting natural resources in the Moab Field Office and to listening to our neighbors and representatives in the local community,” she said. “The BLM has not yet made a final decision regarding what parcels will be proposed for sale.”
The Sand Flats Recreation Area, which is jointly managed by the BLM and the county, attracts more than 191,000 visitors a year and generates $700,000 in revenue for the county government, according to Mary McGann, chairwoman of the Grand County Council. The controversial parcels were nominated for auction by an anonymous individual or company.
In a statement, BLM Utah spokeswoman Kimberly Finch said her office works closely with field and district staff on quarterly lease sales. “BLM Utah does not discuss internal discussions and deliberative decision-making between the field and state office,” she said.
There are other concerns besides the bike trail.
Moab is a hub not just for mountain bikers also for visitors to Arches National Park, which attracted more than 1.6 million parkgoers in 2018. The bright light from any nearby flaring off excess gas may spoil the star-speckled sky over the nearby park, which draws astronomy buffs for its awe-inspiring views of the Milky Way.
“Grand County has no alternative drinking water source,” McGann said.
The residents of Moab have fought this battle before. Late into George W. Bush’s last year in office, the BLM tried leasing tens of thousands of acres near Arches and Canyonlands national parks in Utah before backing down because of public outcry and a lawsuit.