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DESERT NEAR MOAB IS UNDER THREAT

The vicinity of Dead Horse Point State Park near Moab used to be one of the most serene and lovely landscapes in Utah. With the exception of acres of potash evaporation ponds beside the Colorado River far below, it was a desert of redrock cliffs and green river canyons.

But the desert is deteriorating, and may get much, much worse.According to a notice filed with the state clearinghouse on environmental impacts, the Utah Division of State Lands and Forestry is preparing to issue a request for proposals to develop a parcel of state property four miles from the park and six miles from the entrance of Canyonlands National Park's Island District.

"Potential uses for this site include, but are not limited to: resort hotel, restaurant, RV (recreational vehicle) park, bike and Jeep rentals, gas station and convenience store," says the notice, signed by the division's Doug Fullmer.

The project would be built on a tract that is 715 acres - more than a square mile - on the east side of U-313, the highway to the upper section of Canyonlands.

"Right now we're scoping this thing out, seeing if it's practical," Fullmer said. So far, no company has expressed interest.

Then there's the oil rush.

A recent oil strike was made by Columbia Gas Development, Houston, on federal land about seven miles northwest of the park. Columbia used a new technique called horizontal drilling to recover oil in narrow seams, and the well tested out at 2,300 barrels in an hour.

Columbia hopes to bring in 900 barrels a day from the first well. It also wants to drill another half a mile from the entrance to Dead Horse Point State Park.

An environmental assessment by the BLM notes, "The drilling activity will be running 24 hours a day for approximately 46 days. There are white lights on the rig floor and white and red lights on the derrick." It will be visible for miles, especially during the night.

Increased traffic could be a hazard, with about 44 truckloads of drilling equipment transported to the site. Noise could come from the drill rig's diesel engines, mud pumps and draw works.

"If production is attained and pump jacks are used to lift the oil, there may be some pumping noise (metallic squeaking) and engine noise," it says.

As if speaking in an ironic tone, the assessment adds, "Some visitors anticipating to experience solitude may be impacted in the campground."

The assessment doesn't begin to analyze the impacts of production from a whole new oil field in that delicate region. Severe damage would be inevitable if the many wells planned were to hit oil.

Bad enough? No, it gets worse.

Richard J. Mitchell, director of the Utah Division of State Lands and Forestry, has requested that the state drop a mineral withdrawal at Dead Horse State Park itself, which prevented using park property for oil and gas development.

The land was withdrawn on July 20, 1977, by the Division of Parks and Recreation because of its "unique recreational value," he wrote. But now the Lands Division would like to have the restriction lifted, he wrote. "We believe that any adverse effects on the recreational value of the lands can be mitigated."

Jerry A. Miller, director of the Parks Division, responded on April 11 that if there would be significant surface disturbance, a full environmental analysis would be required, "as will potential property replacement at current market and functional value."

The Island area is one of the loveliest and most accessible parts of the Utah redrock desert. Dead Horse Point State Park had 119,600 visits in 1990 and the Island's Canyonlands section recorded 151,000.

Developments in the region are a threat to the economic well-being of Moab, which depends heavily on tourism for their business. It's not as if Columbia Gas Development or Coors Energy, or any of the other companies, are philanthropic organizations planning to plow the money back into this state. Utah coffers would get a small trickle of royalties but not enough to balance the damage to tourism.

Something is out of whack with a system that cares so little for protecting nature. Nobody in power truly champions the beautiful solitude of untouched and irreplaceable desert, and that's tragic.