UTAH — Background: On Election Day, the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) Utah office announced that its December 19 lease sale would include oil and gas leases near Arches and Canyonlands, along with eastern Utah's Dinosaur National Monument. Two weeks ago, the National Park Service said it had improperly been left out of the loop and urged the BLM to remove from the sale list more than 90 lease parcels (covering about 130,000 acres) that were close to the parks.
In a November 24 letter to the Utah BLM, the National Park Service stated unambiguously that its concerns would only be addressed if 93 parcels were withdrawn from the lease sale. Today, however, the Park Service has agreed to the lease sale even though BLM is deferring only 24 parcels leaving on the chopping block the remaining 59 parcels that the Park Service was concerned about.
Earlier today, before the resolution was announced, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), and eight of her colleagues sent a letter to Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne urging him to postpone the lease sales on lands previously identified as having wilderness character and on more than 50,000 acres of Utah lands adjacent to national parks. In the letter, the senators stated, "We appreciate that, according to press reports, BLM recently reached out to NPS and is trying to reinstate historic interagency protocols and address Park Service concerns. It is our hope that this collaboration will ensure oil and gas activities do not occur adjacent to these magnificent public lands and harm the unique natural experience enjoyed by over 2 million visitors each year. We encourage you to continue this important work and postpone the entire sale until stakeholders can research likely impacts and reach consensus on a way forward."
"It appears that the Park Service is being forced to accept the sale of leases that it contends will damage the air, water, and natural quiet of its parks," said Stephen Bloch, conservation director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "Despite public protests and the concerns of its own park service, the outgoing Bush administration is using this sale to push its extreme drill everywhere agenda, and America's national parks and other spectacular public lands will be the worse for it."
Other problems associated with the sale:
- The December 19 lease sale is the symptom of a much more serious disease that is defined by six huge resource management plans that were finalized by the Utah BLM in October and November 2008. These fast-tracked plans which cover 11 million acres in southern and eastern Utah — roll back protection for wildlife, sensitive species, rivers and streams, cultural resources, and "areas of critical environmental concern." They opened millions of acres to off-road vehicle use and oil and gas development, and placed unsurveyed archaeological artifacts, wildlife habitat, and rivers and streams in harm's way.
- In addition to the contentious parcels that impact the National Parks, the December 19 BLM lease sale also put other iconic Utah lands on the chopping block, including Desolation Canyon, the White River, the greater Nine Mile Canyon region, and Bourdette Draw. These public lands had largely been off-limits to new oil and gas leasing because of a series of federal court and administrative decisions overturning earlier illegal BLM leasing decisions. More than 50 percent of the lease sale covers lands proposed for wilderness designation in America's Red Rock Wilderness Act, and the BLM itself has concluded that the majority of these pristine areas are wilderness-quality landscapes.
- BLM has developed a track record over the past eight years of leasing before looking, discouraging and disregarding public comment, and running roughshod over both public land users and even sister agencies like the National Park Service, which BLM also slighted on the recent resource management plans.
"While it is true that NPS personnel attended several meetings during which general information was disseminated to agencies and the public, the NPS was not invited to provide input in the development of strategies or alternatives. It would be misleading to suggest that the NPS was meaningfully involved in the development of this RMP," said Roxanne Runkel from the National Park Service's Intermountain Region Office in a letter to Utah BLM state director Selma Sierra. Ms. Runkel's letter commented on the level of consultation between the National Park Service and the BLM's Richfield field office in the resource management planning process.
"The upcoming lease sale remains short-sighted and disastrous for Utah's best lands," said Stephen Bloch, conservation director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "BLM is ready to put oil rigs and pipelines on lands it has determined to be wilderness caliber, and in the process it is almost certainly disqualifying these places from future wilderness designation."
"Just as important as this lease sale is the policies locked in place by the six Utah resource management plans that were finalized in October and November," said Nada Culver of The Wilderness Society's BLM Action Center. "These plans were rushed through with little opportunity for public comment, and they seek to extend the Bush administration's disastrous environmental policies for another two decades, with a heavy emphasis on off-road vehicle use and drilling, and hardly a nod to wilderness protection."