Conservationists Call For Continued Protection of Fragile Utah Lands

Oct 8, 2009

WASHINGTON - As the Department of Interior and Bureau of Land Management evaluate the impacts that oil and gas development would have on red rock wilderness lands in Utah, conservation groups are calling for ongoing protection of these treasured areas. Following the Bush Administration’s attempted last-minute auction of 77 parcels of lands last year, the courts ruled that BLM did not follow proper procedures. Today, the DOI received recommendations on the propriety of the lease sale, including recommendations to improve the decision-making process. As these recommendations are evaluated, several groups involved in the lawsuit are working to make sure that these valuable natural resources are protected.

Today’s announced report follows a decision by federal district court judge Ricardo Urbina on January 17, 2009 issuing a temporary restraining order prohibiting BLM from issuing these leases.

“This sale was a last minute scheme by political appointees to sell controversial leases in stunningly beautiful areas right before the clock ran out on the Bush administration,” said Stephen Bloch, Conservation Director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, a group involved in the pending litigation. “Secretary of the Interior Salazar, together with new BLM leadership, now has the guidance and details needed to reverse a very bad decision and protect some of America’s most iconic lands, including the White River, Nine Mile Canyon, and lands close to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks and Dinosaur National Monument.”

Key acknowledgments and recommendations from today’s statements from the Department of the Interior and the report include:

  • Mistakes Were Made: Secretary Salazar acknowledged that there was a “headlong rush” to sell these 77 leases and that Utah BLM was operating under a misconception that oil and gas leasing and development should be prioritized. To the contrary, the Report submitted by Deputy Secretary Hayes and the Secretary’s comments confirm that this is a “new day” for the management of our public lands and that protecting wildlife, wilderness, and cultural resources are equally important. The report notes several key flaws in the Utah resource management plans that made this sale possible.
  • Air Quality Impacts Must Be Considered: The Report recognized that BLM has simply not done its homework when it comes to evaluating the impacts of energy development to air quality. The Report correctly notes that BLM needs to work collaboratively with other federal and state agencies to obtain real data about air quality conditions and then perform a quantitative review of that data. These are critically important steps for protecting human health and the health of our natural environment.
  • There Are Many Values and Uses Beyond Oil And Gas; New Guidance Is Needed: The Report confirmed that there is a crucial lack of consistency and coordination in BLM’s oil and gas leasing program and that BLM must take a more proactive role in managing it. Assistant Secretary Lewis acknowledged that there are a host of important values and uses of our public lands, of which oil and gas is one. She will be leading the effort to provide the BLM state and field offices with clear guidance for how to review nominated leases and how to balance competing resources like recreation and wildlife with energy development.

The need for new guidance was underscored by findings in the Report that field office employees believed they were obligated to give greater deference to leasing than to protection of other uses and that BLM could play a greater role in controlling the lands and conditions in leasing decisions.

“The current misunderstandings are a direct result of the Bush Administration’s policies making oil and gas the dominant use on our public lands and turning over control of leasing to the oil and gas industry,” said Nada Culver, Senior Counsel in The Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center. “We are heartened so see the Department of Interior reclaiming its authority and responsibility to manage these lands for all Americans. We hope that the Secretary will take this opportunity to protect the irreplaceable wilderness and cultural values of these places, which overshadow their potential contribution to our nation’s need for fossil fuels.”

An analysis conducted by The Wilderness Society found that the 77 leases under review would contribute less than 2 days worth of natural gas and less than 2 hours of oil at current national consumption levels. Conservationists believe the production results are far outweighed by the damage these proposed leases could have on public lands and the values from safeguarding them.

A June 2009 report prepared by Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes confirmed that BLM did not follow ‘standard operating procedure’ when it rushed ahead with the sale—specifically it did not consult with the National Park Service before releasing the final sale list and did not ultimately listen to many concerns raised by NPS or the Environmental Protection Agency about things like air quality. Today’s report clarifies those previous findings. “We are glad to see that the interests of the National Park Service, and really of all Americans, in protecting the experiences and values of our national parks are recognized in this report,” said David Nimkin, Southwest Regional Director of the National Parks Conservation Association. “We hope to see the Department of Interior confirm its commitment to honoring the national parks and the Park Service’s expertise in managing them, including by safeguarding them from damaging oil and gas drilling.”

BLM cannot issue any of the 77 leases without running afoul of Judge Urbina’s decision. Pending litigation continues to focus on the underlying resource management plans that made the sale possible in the first place. Judge Urbina said in his January order that the conservation groups had demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits of the case that BLM’s resource management plans violated the law.

Following are comments from other conservation groups involved in the pending lawsuit:

  • “The 77 leases are the tip of the iceberg. We hope that BLM will take the time to reconsider the legal flaws in the underlying resource management plans as well,” said Robin Cooley, staff attorney with Earthjustice.
  • "We're pleased to see the BLM reconsider its decision to open these lands to drilling. Drilling is not appropriate on the pristine public lands surrounding places like Arches National Park," said Sierra Club representative Myke Bybee. "We don't need to destroy our natural treasures with drilling. Instead of increasing our reliance on fossil fuels with more drilling, we can power America with clean energy that will create jobs and infuse new life into our economy."
  • “Stopping the leasing of these treasured lands to protect them from devastation by oil and gas companies was the right thing to do,” said Amy Mall, Senior Policy Analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The Department of Interior should move forward with clean energy solutions that will protect our pristine wild lands and vital wildlife areas, and cut carbon pollution -- drilling for oil and gas in America’s western lands doesn’t fit with that objective.”

See more information about the December 19 lease sale, including maps and photos.

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