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Opinion: Fishlake National Forest is vulnerable to irresponsible development. Here’s how we protect it

We cannot afford to jeopardize our wildlands

SHARE Opinion: Fishlake National Forest is vulnerable to irresponsible development. Here’s how we protect it
The upper Fremont River winds through a meadow near Johnson Valley Reservoir in Fishlake National Forest.

The upper Fremont River winds through a meadow near Johnson Valley Reservoir in Fishlake National Forest in May 2007.

Ray Boren, Deseret News

This September, the Bureau of Land Management is planning to hold a lease sale in Utah that could consist of over 31,000 acres of public land being put up for auction to the oil and gas industry, including thousands of acres in Fishlake National Forest.

It is troubling that the BLM is moving forward with leasing here despite the fact that the existing resource management plan for the landscape is woefully outdated and fails to recognize the critical fish and wildlife habitat in Fishlake. Continuing to offer parcels for lease in this area without an adequate resource management plan and necessary reforms to the onshore oil and gas leasing program in place leaves our public lands, waterways and wildlife in this one-of-a-kind landscape vulnerable to irresponsible industry development. 

Known for unparalleled outdoor recreation, diverse species of native and wild fish and crucial bodies of water, Fishlake National Forest is a significant part of Utah’s ecosystems, communities and $12.3 billion outdoor recreation economy. Pursuant to the BLM’s own guidelines, the agency should consider the parcels nominated for leasing in this special place as having low priority for leasing due to their important fish and wildlife habitat, and therefore not include them in the proposed sale. Furthermore, it is essential that the Fishlake National Forest Land and Resource Management Plan of 1986 — a document that has not been meaningfully updated in over 35 years — is changed to reflect the most current data and information available for adequately managing and protecting the landscape.  

Under the current federal oil and gas leasing system, public lands with important values other than oil or gas, such as those in Fishlake National Forest, have been offered to industry at the expense of other uses, such as fish and wildlife conservation and outdoor recreation. For example, between 2012 and 2020, the BLM leased a staggering 5 million acres — roughly twice the size of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks combined — that are home to valuable fish and wildlife habitat but have only little or even no potential for energy development. It is clear that new rules for the public lands leasing system are essential for safeguarding our treasured landscapes and allowing for better management of the multiple uses that public lands offer. 

Last year, Congress took important steps to ensure oil and gas leasing on our public lands is done more responsibly. However, the immense value of the parcels currently under consideration for lease in this sale demonstrates that more work must be done in order to ensure the oil and gas industry is not prioritized above critical habitats, water resources and our local communities. The Department of the Interior must implement a robust, common-sense rulemaking that strengthens the BLM’s current lease sale evaluation criteria to ensure that landscapes with important fish and wildlife values are protected from speculative oil and gas leasing. Additionally, bonding reform is necessary to mandate that, in areas where development does occur, oil and gas companies are held responsible for properly plugging and reclaiming any wells they drill so that Utah’s sensitive landscapes, fish and wildlife, and taxpayers aren’t put at continued risk even after development operations have ceased.  

The parcels of land in Fishlake National Forest currently under consideration for leasing are central to Utah’s fish and wildlife habitats, economy and local communities. It is time for DOI to take broader action to improve how, when and where oil and gas leasing and drilling occurs. We cannot afford to jeopardize any more of our wild and native fish, public lands or the essential waterways upon which we all depend.  

Scott Antonetti is the Chair of Utah Trout Unlimited and resides in Salt Lake City.