Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance

Uranium Mining in Southern Utah — Again?

1:46 pm

DanerosMapThumbnailScarred landscapes, contaminated water, and deadly gases are current reminders of the historic uranium mining and milling operations in southeastern Utah.  Now a Canadian mining corporation, Energy Fuels, is proposing to significantly expand its overall mining operation to increase ore production at its Daneros uranium mine in southeastern Utah.

The Daneros uranium mine, located in the heart of the Colorado Plateau, is surrounded by large expanses of spectacular wild lands.  Located five miles west of Natural Bridges National Monument, the uranium mine expansion is also near Cedar Mesa’s Grand Gulch, the Dark Canyon Wilderness Area, and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area’s Lake Powell.  These are areas enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of visitors from Utah and around the world, many of whom spend time camping, hiking, and enjoying scenic tours on the public lands surrounding the proposed mine site.

Tell the BLM to protect the clean air, scarce water resources, dark night skies, and wilderness-caliber lands rather than approving more speculative and pollution-generating uranium mining.

The Proposal
Energy Fuels is proposing to expand its existing mining operation from the current 4.5-acre operation at the Daneros mine to 46.3 acres (a ten-fold increase in surface disturbance).  The expansion includes the construction of new mining facilities at the nearby Bullseye and South Portal abandoned mine sites, installation of ventilation holes, and the construction of new access roads.  The company’s proposal states that over the next 20 years, 500,000 tons of ore could be produced at the expanded mining operation – an amount five times greater than what is permitted under the current Plan of Operations approved by the BLM in 2011.  For more detailed information on the company’s proposal, see the BLM’s press release.

Energy Fuels is pressuring the BLM to approve this major mine expansion even though the company closed down the Daneros uranium mine in October 2012.  This closure resulted from public backlash at the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster and the subsequent market drop in uranium prices.  The company has not yet re-opened the existing Daneros mine.

Historic Uranium Mining in Utah
Utah and the other states in the Four Corners region have a legacy of thousands of abandoned uranium mine sites.  These abandoned sites pose health, safety, and environmental risks to residents of the area, visitors, and wildlife, in the form of continued air and water contamination.  The federal government has a history of ignoring known sources of contamination and harm caused by the mining and milling of uranium, and has failed to notify uranium workers and the general public of these risks.

This sad history coupled with the significant risks inherent in uranium mining underscores the need for the BLM to conduct a comprehensive environmental analysis of the proposed Daneros uranium mine expansion.  The agency must disclose the potential impacts of expanded uranium mining on air and water quality, wildlife, wilderness, night skies, scenic viewsheds, cultural resources, and public health and safety.  Additionally, because the risks of mining don’t stop at the mine site, the agency must disclose the impacts associated with transporting and milling the uranium ore at the White Mesa Mill near Blanding, Utah.  Incredibly, even in light of the history and risks associated with uranium mining and milling, the BLM is not proposing to analyze the project in a comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement.

Uranium mining and milling is a dirty business, leaving a legacy of decades-old scars on the landscape of southern Utah. Accordingly, this proposed mine expansion should be denied.

Please tell the BLM to protect the area’s clean air, scarce water resources, and wilderness-caliber lands rather than ignoring history and approving more pollution-generating uranium mining.

 

Liz Thomas

Tell the BLM: Protect Recapture Canyon’s Archaeological Treasures

3:09 pm

Recapture Canyon Off-Road Vehicle Right-of-Way

The BLM’s Monticello field office is requesting comments on a proposal for a new network of off-road vehicle trails in Recapture Canyon. This proposed route network includes the illegal route that was constructed in Recapture Canyon in 2005.

BLM should maintain the closure in order to protect the resources

Click on the map to view proposed Rights of Way in and near Recapture Canyon (opens in PDF).

Click on the map to view proposed Rights of Way in and near Recapture Canyon (opens in PDF).


After the illegal trail was constructed in 2005, BLM conducted a cultural resource survey along the illegal trail and identified nearly 300 cultural sites in or near the trail.  The BLM eventually issued an official Closure Order for this illegal route to protect the cultural resources that were at risk of being damaged by use of the unauthorized trail.  Importantly, the BLM’s Closure Order states specifically that off-road vehicle use in the area is causing, or will cause considerable adverse effects to cultural resources.

Tell the BLM: Protect Recapture Canyon’s Archaeological Treasures.

The Place

Recapture Canyon’s stream provides year-round lush habitat for wildlife.  This stream is almost certainly the reason that the Ancestral Puebloans began inhabiting Recapture Canyon nearly 2,000 years ago.  Remarkable remnants from these agrarian communities, many eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, have been preserved through the centuries in this quiet canyon.

An archaeological ruin in Recapture Wash. Photo courtesy of Great Old Broads for Wilderness.


The Hopi Tribe has requested that the BLM continue its closure order due to the sensitive nature of the cultural resources in the canyon.  The Salt Lake Tribune has editorialized against rewarding illegal trail construction by approving the right-of way, and emphasized the need to maintain the closure to protect the archaeological treasures.

Yet San Juan County continues to pressure the agency to grant a right-of-way to the county for the illegal off-road vehicle trail and several other new trails on the rim of the canyon.

The Right Thing

There is no shortage of off-road vehicle trails in San Juan County, where enthusiasts can enjoy over 4,000 miles of trails on public lands.  The BLM has a duty to protect Recapture Canyon’s stream, wildlife habitat, and the ancient Ancestral Puebloan sites, rather than grant an off-road vehicle right-of way to the county that will put nationally significant resources at risk of damage and destruction. The agency should do the right thing, and deny the county’s right-of-way request.

Please take a moment to send a letter to BLM requesting that it deny the county’s right-of-way request for the proposed off-road vehicle trails in and near Recapture Canyon.

Liz Thomas

Naturally reclaimed airstrip in the Mexican Mountain WSA to be “improved”

7:17 am

Abandoned airstrip in the Mexican Mountain WSA. Photo copyright Ray Bloxham/SUWA.

Abandoned airstrip in the Mexican Mountain WSA. Photo copyright Ray Bloxham/SUWA.


The BLM Price Field Office appears ready to give in to the demands of the Utah Back County Pilots Association (BCPA) by allowing the naturally reclaimed landing strip in the heart of the Mexican Mountain Wilderness Study Area (WSA) to be upgraded to its pre-WSA condition.  There are several other backcountry airstrips in and near the San Rafael Swell that are available for BCPA and others to use and enjoy.  Please tell the BLM to preserve the integrity of the Mexican Mountain WSA by denying the proposed maintenance project.

The Airstrip’s beginning and evolution

The Mexican Mountain backcountry airstrip is located deep in the Mexican Mountain WSA, on the banks of the San Rafael River.  It was constructed by an oil company that drilled a test well in the area in 1975, but was quickly abandoned in that same year after the company hit a dry hole and capped the well.  The airstrip has not been maintained since, and Mother Nature has been slowly reclaiming the temporary scar inflicted by the airstrip 38 years ago.

Duty to protect the WSA’s naturalness and opportunities for solitude

Rock art near the airstrip in the Mexican Mountain WSA. Photo copyright Ray Bloxham/SUWA.

Rock art near the airstrip in the Mexican Mountain WSA. Photo copyright Ray Bloxham/SUWA.


Abundant geologic wonders typify the Mexican Mountain WSA: deep slot canyons of the Upper and Lower Back Boxes carved into Paleozoic rocks by the San Rafael River, vast expanses of Navajo Sandstone cut with numerous serpentine canyons, and the massive Mexican Mountain itself.  Archaeological sites, including impressive rock art panels, are found throughout the area.  Opportunities for primitive recreation and solitude abound throughout the WSA’s vast and imposing geologic formations.

The BLM is required to manage WSAs so as not to impair their wilderness characteristics until Congress can designate them as wilderness.  The BLM’s benchmark for non-impairment is the WSA’s condition in 1976 (when the Federal Land Policy and Management Act was passed) or the current condition, whichever is better in terms of wilderness characteristics.

Other backcountry airstrips are available

There are several other backcountry airstrips in and near the San Rafael Swell that are available for BCPA and others to use and enjoy.   However, the Mexican Mountain airstrip is in a WSA and should not be maintained for recreational fixed-wing aircraft use.  The BLM is required to preserve the integrity of the WSA by protecting its naturalness and opportunities for solitude.   The natural revegetation of the airstrip over the past 38 years has improved the wilderness character of the WSA and should not be undone.  Please ask the BLM to deny the proposed maintenance of the Mexican Mountain airstrip.

Liz Thomas

MORE ORV TRAILS IN SAN JUAN COUNTY! Seriously?

6:55 am

We sound like a broken record lately, but we’re just the messenger.  The BLM’s Monticello field office has announced a proposal to add more off-road vehicle (ORV) routes to the 3,000-plus miles of routes in San Juan County that were designated in the 2008 Resource Management Plan and Travel Plan (RMP/TP).

Please tell the BLM to do its homework first!

This new proposal, which comes on the heels of the BLM’s recent decision to allow four new ORV rights-of-way on Cedar Mesa, would add 10 new ORV routes in San Juan County.  This is in addition to the county’s pending right-of-way requests for new ORV routes in Recapture Canyon and Indian Creek.

BLM, do your homework first

Ignoring the fact that the BLM’s 2008 travel plan in San Juan County went overboard by designating over 3,000 miles of motorized routes (the equivalent to driving across the Untied States with a side trip to Canada!), the 2008 RMP/TP did require the Monticello BLM to develop an ORV monitoring plan and provide enhanced enforcement for more effective management of ORV use.  Per the agency’s own directive, the ORV monitoring plan was deemed necessary due to the large number of outstanding identified and recorded cultural sites eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, and the continuing identification of yet unknown sites.  Five years later, we’re still waiting for that monitoring plan and for actual monitoring to occur along the 3,000-plus miles of designated routes.

And, since the national average is one BLM law enforcement officer for every 1.76 million acres, we’re nearly certain that the Monticello field office has not enhanced its enforcement presence in the backcountry to a meaningful level.

Wrong places, wrong message

arch

The new ORV route is proposed for this area in Arch Canyon at the US Forest Service boundary, where ORV use is prohibited.


The new ORV routes are proposed in Arch Canyon, Recapture Canyon, at the base of Wingate Mesa west of White Canyon, near Lake Canyon, and along the San Juan River east of Comb Ridge.  Several of these routes are located in areas with wilderness character, while others are located in sensitive riparian habitat or in areas known to have dense archaeological sites.

The BLM should complete the required ORV monitoring plan and undertake on-the-ground monitoring of the existing ORV routes to document ongoing resource damages and user compliance before considering the addition of more ORV routes.  In addition, adding these illegally pioneered ORV trails to the BLM’s official travel plan legitimizes unauthorized ORV use and sends the message that the BLM will reward the creation of illegal trails by eventually adding the trails to its travel plan.

Please take a moment to tell the Monticello BLM office:  Monitor existing routes before adding new routes, and do not designate new ORV routes in proposed wilderness or other ecologically sensitive areas. 

Thank you!

Liz Thomas

Utah BLM Relinquishes ORV Routes on Cedar Mesa

8:08 am

The BLM’s Monticello Field Office recently capitulated to pressure from San Juan County and ceded control and management of public lands for four rights-of-way for new off-road vehicle (ORV) trails on Cedar Mesa.

Please tell the Utah BLM State Director to instead defend the public’s interest in retaining management and control of our public lands.

Lower Grand Gulch, copyright Robert Fillmore.

Lower Grand Gulch, copyright Robert Fillmore.


Recall that in 2008 the BLM designated routes across public lands in southern Utah, effectively ending the out-dated and ridiculous policy of unrestricted cross-country travel.  Although the BLM’s travel plan for public lands in San Juan County isn’t perfect (SUWA has a pending legal challenge to the travel plan in federal court), it is a big improvement over the unmitigated chaos of cross-country travel.

However, even though the BLM designated more than 3,000 miles of routes and trails in San Juan County, it was nevertheless too few for the fanatical road cultists there.  And, inexplicably, the BLM rolled over, giving the county rights-of-way to build new ORV trails on Cedar Mesa.  The new trails will connect ORV routes on the east side of Cedar Mesa with routes on the west side of Cedar Mesa, thereby allowing ORV riders to “travel back and forth” between the two areas more conveniently!

Wrongheaded

Two of the new rights-of-way bisect lands in America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act, places even the BLM agrees are of wilderness caliber.  The BLM’s decision to allow new ORV routes in these areas effectively negates the wilderness and roadless character of large tracts of land.  It would have been bad enough for the BLM to merely designate and add these new ORV trails on Cedar Mesa to the agency’s travel plan.  But it defies logic why the BLM would hand over management and control of public lands to the county by granting rights-of-way for these ORV trails.  What’s more, these rights-of-way can be renewed after 20 years, ad infinitum, effectively giving the county ownership of these routes in perpetuity.

It boils down to this: The BLM is legally responsible for protecting archaeology and natural resources on our public lands; beyond argument, ORV use results in increased vandalism and looting of archaeological sites, degrades water quality and stream functioning, increases soil erosion and fragments wildlife.  With this in mind, it makes little sense to allow San Juan County to chainsaw old-growth juniper trees to bulldoze new routes across roadless wildlands in areas with some of the richest archaeology on the planet.  Yet that’s exactly what the BLM has done.

There’s more

San Juan County has additional ORV rights-of-way requests in the queue – one in Indian Creek and the other in Recapture Canyon.  Please ask the Utah State BLM Director to stand up to the pressure from San Juan County and deny the county’s request for ORV rights-of-way in Indian Creek and Recapture Canyon.

Liz Thomas