WASHINGTON — On the heels of a controversial sale of oil and gas leases on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) public lands in Utah, many in close proximity to popular National Parks, in lands proposed for wilderness protection, or in lands retaining sensitive archaeological resources, Congressmen Rush Holt (D-NJ), Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), and Brian Baird (D-WA) today led 58 U.S. Representatives in asking President-Elect Obama's transition team to recommend that the next administration quickly cancel contested leases from this sale, and importantly, revise Utah land-use management plans to ensure wilderness quality lands are not leased for energy development in the future.
On Friday, more than 110,000 acres of sensitive public lands in Utah, 60,000 of which is proposed for wilderness designation in Congress through America's Red Rock Wilderness Act, were auctioned off for energy development. Many of these lands are in close proximity to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks and Dinosaur National Monument, while other parcels will negatively impact the unmatched wild nature of Desolation Canyon on the Green River, the remote Book Cliffs, as well as the world’s largest outdoor art gallery, the archaeological treasure trove of Nine Mile Canyon. These federal public lands were all made available to energy development in November when the Bush administration finalized new land-use management plans for the affected areas.
“The millions of Americans who visit Utah's beautiful public lands, and even those who have not visited, understand the importance of preserving our natural heritage. Unfortunately, the outgoing Administration is prepared to leave a legacy that ensures the gradual destruction of that heritage. The Obama-Biden Administration will have the opportunity to create a new direction for wild Western lands, and should act to preserve these lands,” Rep. Rush Holt said.
The letter sent this morning specifically requests that when the new administration takes office, it make immediate steps to cancel the leases that conflict with proposed wilderness and refund the high bidders for those leases. Federal regulations are clear that the administration can cancel any lease it determines has been improperly issued. In this situation, the Bush administration acted inappropriately by not adequately considering the strongest protective management for the wilderness-quality lands leased on Friday during the recent planning process, amongst other concerns. For that reason, the letter also asks the Obama-Biden administration to prevent future lease sales in Utah like this one by reviewing and revising recently completed land-use management plans in Utah so that they better protect millions of acres of proposed-wilderness lands from damaging impacts.
“We must demand that our federal land managers follow the law and ensure a balanced approach to use of our public lands. While I proudly represent Southwest Washington, the landscapes of Southern Utah are the lands of my youth. Every American from now until forever should have the chance to see them just as are they are today. The beauty is stunning; the silence is deafening, and the area is simply no place for an oil derrick,” commented Rep. Brian Baird.
"Today over 60 million acres of public land in this country sit idle despite having been leased for energy development, including 3.5 million acres in Utah alone. Given that incredible surplus, any actions that might degrade America's Red Rock Wilderness, a true national treasure, would be nothing short of a tragedy. I am hopeful and optimistic that the Obama administration will take the necessary steps to cancel these leases and revise the land-use plans from which they flowed," added Rep. Maurice Hinchey.
In addition to asking President-elect Obama to cancel the leases, members of the UWC along with a coalition of environmental and historic preservation groups filed suit on December 17 asking the courts to halt these leases. After the filing of the lawsuit, a joint agreement was reached between BLM and the coalition that prevents BLM from issuing leases on 80 contested parcels of Utah wilderness for thirty days (until January 19). Although BLM proceeded with the December 19th auction, they agreed to not issue the contested leases until Judge Urbina hears the case.
To see pictures of lands in the Dec. 19 lease sale, click here.