The March to Drill: Will Utah’s Sacred Lands Be Saved?

Large rock art panel threatened by intensive natural gas development, West Tavaputs Plateau, Utah. By Phil Hanceford.

In an attempt to halt the Bush Administration’s eleventh-hour plundering of Utah’s iconic redrock canyon country, The Wilderness Society on Dec. 17 joined six other conservation groups in a lawsuit aimed at stopping the administration’s upcoming oil and natural gas lease sale.

The Dec. 19 lease sale would auction off to oil and gas companies more than 110,000 acres of public land around Arches and Canyonlands national parks, Dinosaur National Monument, Desolation Canyon and Nine Mile Canyon, which contains such a concentration of native rock art that it is often called the world’s longest outdoor art gallery.

In a rush to open these lands, the Bureau of Land Management failed to adequately complete the required analysis of the impacts of energy development, violating the National Environmental Policy Act and National Historic Preservation Act.

During a news conference announcing the lawsuit Wednesday in Washington, D.C., Congressman Brian Baird, who grew up in nearby Fruita, Colo., derided the lease sale as a final insult from the Bush Administration. “Once these pristine wilderness lands are destroyed, we can never get them back,” Baird said.

The news conference also included actor Robert Redford, who called the leasing of the Utah Canyon Country for energy development “morally criminal.”

In its haste, the BLM ignored requests by the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Park Service, the Hopi tribe and numerous conservation and historic preservation groups to analyze impacts on air pollution in national parks, cultural resources and climate change.

Instead of conducting a thorough analysis, the BLM hastily-approved management plans for the Moab, Vernal and Price resource areas. Those lands contain vast numbers of historic sites, intricate fragile rock formations and countless remote canyons that symbolize the wildness of the West.

“The BLM ignored our protests and defied any semblance of reason in these plans,” said Nada Culver of The Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center. Most of the energy development called for in the plans could still have gone forth if all wilderness-quality land had been protected, but the BLM refused to do that, she said.

“The BLM chose to develop these precious places anyway,” Culver said. “Now we’re going to show the Bush Administration what it has done is illegal.”

With the BLM bent on opening to development as much of southern Utah’s wildlands as it could before Bush leaves office, The Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center has played a leadership role in analyzing, critiquing, and attempting to correct the complex resource land-use plans.

“We want the court to stop Friday’s giveaway as the first step toward declaring the new resource management plans illegal,” Culver said. “We hope the court will grant an injunction against the lease sale so the BLM can’t do any more damage to Canyon Country under its destructive new plans.”

In all, conservation groups are challenging 80 leases allowed by the three plans.

photo: Large rock art panel threatened by intensive natural gas development, West Tavaputs Plateau, Utah. By Phil Hanceford.