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Moab Climbing Areas Threatened by Oil and Gas Development

Enormous swaths of public land around Moab have been nominated for leasing to oil and gas companies, encompassing classic desert climbing areas. Public comment is open for the next 30 days to prevent leasing the land.

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Looking down on Moab’s Kane Creek blvd from Abraxas Tower.Kevin Corrigan

More than 80,000 acres of public land have been nominated for lease to oil and gas companies in the Moab area, threatening iconic climbing destinations. On June 9, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released an environmental assessment of the nominated land that is now open to public comment for 30 days. The public has until July 9 to convince the BLM that these lands are invaluable recreational spaces—both culturally and economically—to sway them from auctioning off the public spaces to oil and gas companies in September.

“If the public can compel the BLM with an argument that is well substantiated, then, conceivably, the leases will be dropped from this sale,” said Erik Murdock, policy director at the Access Fund. “That’s the goal. This is our last chance, this is our 30 day period to make this argument.”

Update: Access Fund Action Alert
The Access Fund is asking climbers to contact the Moab BLM Field Office to cancel the oil and gases leases now up for auction around Moab. Use Access Fund’s east letter-writing tool to make your voice heard.

[Access Fund will be releasing an action alert soon with talking points from the environmental assessment to help guide your comments. We’ll update this story when it is available, and sign up for the Action Network to be notified when action alerts are released.]

The process for leasing public land to oil and gas companies is this: The public (read “oil and gas companies”) nominates parcels of land to be leased; the BLM does a quick investigation to vet out areas that are clearly inappropriate for development; the remaining areas go through a more thorough environmental assessment; once the environmental assessment is released, the BLM is open to public comment for 30 days; if the public cannot present an argument that deters the BLM from leasing the land, the land is auctioned to the highest bidder in the resource extraction industry, which is often as low as $2 per acre. Essentially, without public intervention, it is possible that a single energy company could lease and develop more than 80,000 acres of public land around Moab for less than $200,000 per year.

“Under this administration, it is usually the majority of nominated leases that go up for auction,” Murdock said. “Under the last administration, this same area was covered under the Master Leasing Plan.”

The Master Leasing Plan for the Moab area was a forward-thinking and balanced approach put in place under the Obama administration to determine what parcels of land could be leased, and protected areas of cultural, recreational, and economic significance. The Master Leasing Plan took into account the fact that outdoor recreation is both a more dependable and more profitable economic resource than oil and gas.

“It was a comprehensive and holistic way to look at how you should use an area,” Murdock said. “It identified recreation sites, climbing areas that should not be impacted.”

However, the Master Leasing Plan was essentially abolished by President Trump’s “Energy Dominance” policies. Per the White House website: “President Trump has rolled back stifling policies put in place by the previous administration that were holding back our country from achieving energy dominance.”

One such “stifling policy” was the Moab Master Leasing Plan.

In a 2017 report regarding the steps toward “Energy Dominance,” the Department of the Interior asserted that they were “delaying, revising, or rescinding burdensome regulations and policies to improve domestic energy production and support jobs.”

The result: the removal of the Master Leasing Plan, expedited environmental reviews, fewer opportunities for public input and appeals, shortened protest windows, and the requirement that the BLM holds quarterly auctions for nominated leases. According to the Access Fund: “Since these changes went into effect, nearly every nominated parcel has been approved for auction and subsequent development.”

The American Southwest is a mecca for climbers, with Moab being the epicenter. The splitter cracks, red sandstone cliffs, and desert towers make up some of the most sought after rock climbing on Earth. If this land is leased to oil and gas companies, these iconic landscapes could be tarnished by oil rigs, heavy machinery, truck traffic, and air and water pollution. Furthermore, there is a risk that climbing areas could be closed off entirely.

“It’s a safety issue,” Murdock said. “If an oil rig is near access to a climbing area, and industrial activities are near a climbing area, it might not be safe for anybody to be there, and that would certainly affect access.”

However, the scope of the issue falls far beyond climbing access. Moab is also a haven for trekkers, mountain bikers, off-roaders, whitewater enthusiasts, and the casual tourist alike. In fact, tourism is the most vital piece of the economy in Moab’s home of Grand County. According to The Economic Value of Public Lands in Grand County, Utah, published in 2015, 47% of all jobs in Grand County were related to the tourism and travel industry. The same study also states that: “nearly two-thirds of local residents indicate that public lands are ‘extremely important’ to their business.”

It is unknown at this time how drastic of an effect oil and gas extraction on public lands surrounding Moab would have on the tourism and travel industry. That is an assessment that would have been made under the abandoned Master Leasing Plan.

“By ignoring conservation, traditional values, and recreation, you’re making short sighted decisions that do not benefit the entire American public and in fact our economy,” Murdock said. “A recent economic analysis clearly indicates that outdoor recreation is more dependable and is generating more money than oil and gas. Why would you choose to prioritize an industry that is making less money than another one that you can protect?”

Under normal circumstances, oil and gas companies would be required to pay royalties on their extraction off public lands back to the federal government, which is then distributed to the states that house the wells. However, with the current economic crisis induced by the COVID-19 pandemic and the reduced demand for oil, President Trump has drastically slashed royalty payments for energy companies operating on public lands, in an effort to give a break to Big Oil. In turn, this creates very little economic incentive for state and local governments.

“Access Fund is not opposed to appropriate oil and gas development,” Murdock said. “What we oppose, and what we believe is illegal, is to prioritize one public land value over the others, at the cost of the others. We believe that our public land should be used for many different things… We’re not asking for special treatment, we’re asking for balance.”

After these lands are auctioned off, we might not see oil and gas development for years or even decades. Oil prices are at a low right now, so it is not in a company’s best interest to build an extraction well right away. However, land prices are also at a low, so it is in their best interest to lease enormous swaths of resource-rich land, paying a yearly fee of as little as $2 per acre, and wait for a resurgence in the market to begin extraction. This means that, come September, this land could be auctioned off without any immediate development taking place. According to Murdock, these spaces could exist for years without any change, while the public slowly forgets that oil and gas companies have a hold on the land—until the market is right and oil rigs begin sprouting up next to classic desert splitters.

You can take action to help prevent this land from being leased to oil and gas companies by commenting on the environmental assessment released by the BLM. Click here for the portal for public comments.

A note from the BLM regarding comments: “The most useful comments are those that identify issues relevant to the proposed action or contain new technical or scientific information. Comments which contain only opinions or preferences, or comments that are essentially identical to other comments, will not be specifically addressed in the [environmental assessment], but may be considered in the decision-making process.”

A beacon of hope for the climbing community is that some of the original nominated parcels of land included popular Moab climbing areas like Potash Road and Spring Canyon, but those areas were removed from the lease sale after the Access Fund’s initial scoping comments. This means that climbers have a legitimate voice in the matter and the BLM is receptive to the fact that rock climbing is a valuable use of the land.