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Utah’s public lands are what make it special, and they must be protected

The entrance to Zion National Park is pictured on Wednesday, March 25, 2020. The park was closed on Friday, April 3, 2020, to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

Utah’s public lands are the envy of other states, and they draw countless visitors from all over the world. They also are at the heart of what it means to be a Utahn — no matter your background. Growing up, I spent a majority of my free time outdoors, hunting elk and deer on our public lands to put food on the table. Now, as a state representative, I feel an even greater sense of duty to protect these places so that families like mine can continue to enjoy and recreate on our public lands, particularly during these difficult times.

That is why it is so upsetting to watch the current administration repeatedly target some of Utah’s most beloved public lands for drilling. Over the past year alone, the administration has twice attempted to lease public lands on the doorstep of Arches and Canyonlands national parks for drilling — and even tried to lease portions of Moab’s famed Slickrock mountain biking trail. Only after significant opposition from state and local officials and the outdoor business community, among others, did the administration back down. These actions are not only a disservice to the citizens of our state who are using our public lands in even greater numbers during the pandemic, but also threaten Utah’s $12.3 billion outdoor recreation economy and 110,000 direct jobs.

But vast expanses of public lands, including sensitive big game habitat, remain at risk and are set to be auctioned for leasing on Sept. 29. As someone who grew up hunting deer and elk, and fishing alongside my father and uncle, I know how central hunting and fishing are to the Utah way of life. I also know how important hunting and fishing are to our outdoor economy. Folks travel far and wide and local businesses depend on revenue from these visitors to survive. Holding this lease sale and handing over big game corridors to oil and gas companies for drilling could mean the end for many local businesses.

But how did we get to the point where Utah’s most sensitive public lands are routinely on the table for oil and gas leasing? Clearly, the administration and its desire to make drilling the dominant use of public lands deserves much of the blame. But the root of the problem is a woefully outdated oil and gas leasing system that lets these ill-advised proposals move forward in the first place.

We must overhaul this system to ensure that government and taxpayer resources are not being wasted on trying to lease sensitive public lands, including those on the doorstep of Arches, Canyonlands and other national parks, as well as big game habitats, for drilling. Furthermore, this system must be fixed to make sure that landscapes with little potential for energy development aren’t leased for speculative purposes, but instead efficiently and effectively managed, for everyone — not just the oil and gas industry.

Utah’s communities, like Moab, have worked tirelessly to build a strong outdoor recreation economy and to free themselves from the infamous boom and bust cycle of oil and gas development. I encourage my colleagues and other elected officials to support these efforts by calling for a dramatically new leasing system for our public lands. I also call on Secretary Bernhardt to put the well-being of Utah’s families first and cancel the upcoming oil and gas lease sales.

State Rep. Mark Archuleta Wheatley represents Utah’s 25th district. He serves as a member of the Advisory Board for Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO).