I am not a native Utahn but I have come to love and deeply appreciate my adopted state with all of its mountain ranges, the deserts, canyons and the Great Salt Lake. I am not a writer, I am just a photographer so my images often tell the story better than I do. I hope these images; a tiny sampling of the splendor found within the San Rafael Swell, will help to tell this story.
I have developed a great appreciation for wilderness areas such as the San Rafael Swell with its plants, wildlife and of course birds. I also find myself studying the geological features of many of the areas in Utah and the San Rafael Swell is one of Utah’s greatest geological features. The San Rafael Swell area has hoodoos, canyons, mesa tops, slot canyons, hidden valleys, jagged cliff faces, reefs, rivers and together they all form a scenic and geological wonderland.
The San Rafael Swell is home to around 25 endemic plants, plants that occur no where else on this planet and are threatened or endangered. It is also home to newly discovered insect species and provides substantial habit for Bighorn Sheep, Pronghorn and Mountain Lions. There may be many more undiscovered invertebrates in the Swell.
By now you may be wondering why I am mentioning the endemic plants and the other threatened or endangered species.
The BLM is set to lease out 79,000 acres of land within the San Rafael Swell area for oil and gas drilling that has the potential to cause irreversible damage to this highly sensitive arid area of Utah, to the plants, animals, insects and water. In an arid area like the San Rafael Swell every drop of water is critical and the slightest bit of pollution could have far reaching, damaging effects to the immediate area and far downstream.
The BLM currently has over 3 million acres of lands in Utah already leased for oil and gas development that have not been drilled. Yes, I said they have not been drilled yet they are going to auction another 79,000 acres in a highly sensitive wilderness area. To what end? Habit destruction? More roads that will affect the flow of water in the Swell?
Utah depends on tourism especially in areas like the San Rafael Swell, Moab, Canyonlands and Escalante. As a tourist, why would I want to come to Utah to see oil wells? Listen to the sound of drills fracturing their way through the earth? I would want to come to see wilderness, not gas wells or oil fields. That is what I want now.
I wouldn’t want to camp in the Swell and listen to the sound of huge trucks thundering down the dirt roads. As a tourist I would want to hear the birds and the wind rustling through the Sagebrush and Junipers.
Areas within the San Rafael Swell are already protected and in 2002 then Governor Mike Levitt proposed the creation of a “San Rafael Swell National Monument” and at the time President George W. Bush
ignored never acted on Levitt’s proposal, the proposal resurfaced in 2010 and the current administration hasn’t acted on it either.
Throughout the San Rafael Swell there is evidence of ancient Native American cultures Including the Fremont, Paiute and Ute in the form of pictographs and petroglyphs such as those found at Buckhorn Wash. People come from all over the world to see ancient rock art, to see a part of the past in front of them. And Utah needs tourism.
More environmental studies are needed before these lands in the San Rafael Swell are leased, before a well is drilled. Before it is too late to save a species from extinction. Before the land is irreversibly scarred. Some people may see the San Rafael Swell as a huge wasteland but in reality is it a vast wilderness unlike any other in this world. Isn’t it worth saving? For today and future generations?
With over 3 million acres of Utah already leased out for oil production wouldn’t it be in everyone’s best interest to fully understand the environmental impacts? Or the impacts of loss of income from tourism to the state of Utah?
This… could be the road to disaster. Or the road to a one of a kind National Monument for Utahns, other people from North America and from around the world.
Sources of information on this critical issue:
WildUtahProject.org: The Ecological Importance and Biological Uniqueness of the San Rafael Swell
Gazette.com: Drilling auction seeks to open San Rafael Swell