Department of Interior cancels controversial drilling leases

Rafting in a river canyon of Dinosaur National Monument, Utah. Courtesy NPS.

More than 100,000 acres of Utah wilderness received protection from oil and gas drilling on Feb. 4 when Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar announced the agency would cancel 77 controversial land leases issued under the Bush Administration.

The action is among the first taken by the Obama administration to protect America’s wild lands.

Since December, a coalition of environmental groups, including The Wilderness Society, has been working to protect these public lands. In December, the coalition filed suit to stop the leasing, and, in January, Judge Ricardo M. Urbina of the U.S. District Court granted a temporary restraining order preventing the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) from moving forward with these leases.

The leases cancelled by the Department of Interior were for areas near Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, Dinosaur National Monument, and Nine Mile Canyon, which include lands that contain the nation’s greatest density of ancient rock art and other cultural resources.

Even with the Department of Interior's cancellation, the coalition will move forward with legal action to address the larger issue of the Resource Management Plans (RMPs) that remain in place in Utah.

“The Secretary's action is very gratifying,” said Nada Culver of The Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center. “However, the underlying deficiencies of the land use plans still must be addressed, or we could continue to see more bad leasing decisions when the BLM has its next Utah lease sale in March,” she said.

Cancelling the leases is a critical first step, but the problem will come up again unless problems in the management plans are fixed.

These problems include failure to address air pollution and climate change, failure to protect cultural resources, and failure to limit damage from off road vehicle use. The six management plans were authored during the last days of the Bush administration and have serious ramifications for 7 million acres of public lands. Despite years of advocacy by The Wilderness Society's BLM Action Center, the BLM ignored those ramifications and favored policies to prioritize drilling and motorized use above protecting irreplaceable pictographs, wildlife and even public health.

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, and the Sierra Club.

photo: Rafting in a river canyon of Dinosaur National Monument, Utah. Photo by Mike Weinstein, courtesy NPS.