The Utah Bureau of Land Management has sold oil and gas leases near Hovenweep National Monument, despite requests by monument officials to defer them to protect archaeological and natural resources.
In March, 43 parcels totaling 51,400 acres in southeastern Utah were sold for oil and gas development for $1.5 million.
The National Park Service requested that 13 of the parcels located within 15 miles of Hovenweep National Monument units be deferred, according to an Oct. 23 comment letter on the BLM lease sale plan. The request was denied.
Industrial development threatens to impact qualities enjoyed by visitors, such as scenic views, air quality, soundscapes and night skies, according to comments submitted by Kate Cannon, superintendent of the Southeast Utah Group, which includes Hovenweep. Visitation to Hovenweep ruin sites increased by 60 percent between 2014 and 2016, according to National Park Service data. Visitation to nearby Natural Bridges National Monument increased by 10 percent.
“The visiting public expects high-quality experiences across federal land, and we are concerned that continuing to offer parcels for oil and gas exploration and development in proximity to our parks will be detrimental to the experience of the visiting public,” Cannon states in the letter.
As part of a 2017 environmental analysis, the BLM completed a viewshed study to determine whether future mineral resource development would be visible to recreational visitors within Hovenweep National Monument.
It found that about 20 percent of the lease parcels would be visible to the casual observer at Hovenweep. For example, from the Road 10 Cutthroat turnoff, 269 acres of nearby proposed energy leases are visible.
Monument officials also worry that pollution from drilling and the visual impact of roads, well pads and dust will cause haze and diminish views. They say underground drilling practices could lubricate fault lines and trigger earthquakes that can damage fragile archaeological sites.
The park service recommended additional air-quality and viewshed stipulations to leasing, including tougher emission controls standards for drill rig engines, and more stringent dust-control plans.
Protecting soundscapes and dark skies at Hovenweep from drill pad noise and lighting is also a concern. The monument was designated as an International Dark Sky Park in 2014 because of its near-pristine stargazing opportunities.
“Based on the concentration of 18 lease parcels within 3 to 25 miles of Hovenweep National Monument ... the potential for significant impact to the natural lightscape is high,” the comment letter stated, adding that detrimental impacts are “probable.”
The monument promotes the use of advanced lighting designs that support worker safety while protecting dark skies. Data collected by the NPS Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division found that in certain conditions, unmitigated lighting of industrial facilities can be detected up to 35 miles away.
Similarly, the park cites noise propagation data modeling that shows unmitigated drilling noise may be heard more than 6 miles away.
It urged additional noise mitigation for drilling rigs, especially on two lease parcels within 5 miles of the Square Tower Unit of Hovenweep, which includes the campground and visitors center.
Encroachment of oil and gas development on parks and monuments with the dark sky status is becoming a concern, said John Barentine, program manager for the International Dark-Sky Association, based in Tucson.
No park has had its dark sky designation compromised by oil and gas development, but the issue is on the radar, he said.
“It’s a timely question. We are getting reports that more oil and gas development is a concern for dark sky parks,” Barentine said. “Changes at the Interior Department mean they are more friendly toward increasing drilling leases.”