Controversial Utah oil and gas leases are flawed

Rafting in Dinosaur National Monument, Utah. Courtesy National Park Service.

Utah's treasured public lands got a reprieve June 11 when the Department of the Interior released a report confirming that the process used for the December 2009 sale of 77 Utah oil and gas leases was flawed.

Among its shortcomings, the faulty process included a last-ditch effort by the Bureau of Land Management to include tracts of land close to Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park and Dinosaur National Monument, without consulting the Park Service. The sale also would have leased places like Nine Mile Canyon, which contains the nation’s greatest density of ancient rock art, as well as lands with acknowledged wilderness values, like Desolation Canyon.

The Wilderness Society and partner groups have been fighting since December to protect these spectacular public lands.

In January, a federal district court issued a temporary injunction against the sale of the 77 Utah leases. One month later, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar pulled the parcels off the auction block for further consideration, allowing the department time to study the process and determine how the leases – including those with documented wilderness values — actually made it to the auction in the first place.

“After eight years of unbalanced, exploitative policies toward wildlands, the Department of the Interior now appears to be taking important steps to protect the West’s last wild places,” said Nada Culver of The Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center, which played a key role in documenting the environmental value of the leased parcels.

South Fork Indian Pictographs Panel, Utah. Photo by Phil Hanceford.“We will continue our efforts to protect our nation’s most sensitive natural and cultural treasures from irresponsible oil and gas development, especially areas that qualify as wilderness,” Culver said.

The agency’s report recommends the BLM form a special team to make final decisions on the Utah leases and that the agency consult the Park Service, EPA, and state officials to create a comprehensive air quality strategy for the region.

It also recommends requiring the BLM to work more closely with the Park Service and issuing guidance to help BLM officials that take into account nearby parks or other sensitive landscapes, including those with wilderness characteristics, when determining what parcels are appropriate for auction.

The Interior Department report also indicated that at least 30 leases may be reinstated.

In addition to The Wilderness Society, the coalition working to fight the inappropriate leasing in Utah includes the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Grand Canyon Trust, Earthjustice, and the Sierra Club.

Rafting in Dinosaur National Monument, Utah. Courtesy National Park Service.
Pictograph panel, Utah. Photo by Phil Hanceford.