Rejecting Utah drilling is a good start to fixing larger problem

Arches National Park.

It’s a good day when you can be reasonably assured that a trip to the Windows or Delicate Arch at Arches National Park won’t be tarnished by the thought that most of the public land surrounding the park is in the hands of the oil and gas industry.

That’s because the U.S. Department of Interior just rejected the bids for 77 oil and gas leases around Utah’s Arches and Canyonlands national parks, Desolation and Nine Mile canyons and Dinosaur National Monument that were auctioned off at the end of the Bush administration. I don’t have to tell you that if these lands were developed, you wouldn’t be looking at a pristine landscape that gave rise to the protection of those places in the first place — it would look outright industrial.

But the cancellation of those leases is only a first step in reversing the Bush administration’s oil and gas industry free-for-all on our public lands. The problem is, those cancelled leases can still appear in a future lease sale because the plan for how that land is to be managed opens nearly the entire region to energy development.

In order to reverse the years of ill-advised policies embodied in these plans, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and the Obama administration will now need to revisit the recently-approved resource management plans for southern Utah to recognize and protect wilderness-quality and environmentally sensitive lands.

This is the kind of true change that would lead to the greatest benefit for the most Americans with respect to our public land’s heritage.

Think of it this way: If Salazar protects all the sensitive and wilderness-quality lands in southern and eastern Utah we asked the Bush administration to protect in these management plans, 85 percent of the region’s more than 9,200 oil and natural gas wells could still be drilled. And, 90 percent of all the newly-designated off-highway vehicle routes wouldn’t go anywhere. In other words, this kind of land management planning would allow for a balance of uses among the interests of all Americans.

The Department of Interior should know that we’re grateful these leases have been rejected. But that’s only the tip of the Bush administration’s very destructive iceberg. It’s going to take a full overhaul of the underlying management plans to make real progress and protect these irreplaceable lands for decades to come.

photo: Arches National Park