Federal land managers sent out mixed signals this month by denying one mining project and approving another along the California Trail.
Mesa Exploration Corp. was denied an exploration permit in western Utah, in part because the project was within 10 miles of the historic trail.
In eastern Elko County, Noble Energy Inc. was given permission to drill a number of exploratory fracking wells — some of them within a mile or two of the same trail.
We wondered if the Bureau of Land Management was just being fickle, or if other factors come into play.
The Noble project, which is also situated in prime sage grouse habitat, was allowed to proceed after the company agreed to mitigation measures involving both the bird and the trail.
Steps were taken to minimize the impact of Noble’s operation on sage grouse — enough to satisfy biologists with the BLM and the Nevada Department of Wildlife. But the project is still within the California Trail “viewshed.” Instead of lessening that impact, the oil company agreed to pay $150,000 to perform research on the trail.
In other words, Noble purchased the liberty to impact the trail’s viewshed. That sounds more like the granting of an “indulgence” than mitigation.
Agencies like the BLM would not be in a position to grant such favors if not for the assumption of total authority, combined with an ambiguity in values. Nowhere in the extensive environmental documentation does it state a framework for balancing economic and aesthetic factors objectively.
Mesa Exploration’s project is entirely different from oil and gas production, but neither project has as much impact as a typical gold mine.
According to Mesa Exploration, surface potash operations have no hard rock to blast or move, no fleet of haul trucks or blasting, no shafts or open pits, no waste dumps or tailings, and no crushing circuits or cyanide.
But they must be damned ugly if they spoil the view of wagon ruts from 10 miles away.
Historians say this particular section of the trail is less spoiled than other parts, which gives it special consideration as a “high potential route segment.”
Mesa intends to pursue more appeals, saying the company has the backing of Utah and Nevada congressmen.
“This restriction imposed on this large area by the BLM is unprecedented, unwarranted and, we believe, unlawful,” said Mesa CEO Foster Wilson.
We don’t know if that’s true, or if this portion of the California Trail should be preserved for future generations. In either case, federal land managers need to do a better job of explaining their decisions in quantifiable terms, so the average citizen can distinguish whether they are practicing science or religion.
Members of the Elko Daily Free Press editorial board are Travis Quast, Jeffry Mullins and Marianne Kobak McKown.