Utah Canyon Country Gets Reprieve from Oil and Gas Leasing

Upper Desolation Canyon, proposed wilderness at risk to oil and gas leasing. Photo by Ray Bloxham, Courtesy SUWA.

An attempt to halt the Bush Administration’s eleventh-hour plundering of Utah’s iconic redrock canyon country has resulted in a last minute reprieve from oil and gas leasing for places like Nine Mile and Desolation Canyon, as well as other beloved public lands in Utah.

The lands contain vast numbers of historic sites, intricate fragile rock formations and countless remote canyons that symbolize the wildness of the West.

Just days after The Wilderness Society and six other conservation groups brought a lawsuit to protect 100,000 acres of wilderness quality lands from leasing, the BLM announced today that, while it would sell the leases in these areas, it would temporarily halt the issuance of the leases until January 19 – the final full day of the Bush administration.

The reprieve buys time for a federal court to hear the conservationists’ lawsuit.

“Our goal is to have this lease sale declared illegal because it was predicated upon management plans that are illegal – not to mention irresponsible,” said Nada Culver of The Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center, which took the lead with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) in protesting each of the management plans.

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

Today the BLM sold 116 of the 131 parcels of land it offered to the oil and gas industry, totaling 148,598 acres. Conservation groups contested 80 of the leases on pristine wildlands, including land adjacent to national parks, 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. The BLM had, just days earlier, removed from the lease sale lands adjacent to Dinosaur National Monument and Arches National Park after a storm of public protest.

The situation took another twist Friday when journalist Keith Kloor reported in Mother Jones Magazine’s MojoBlog that the Bush administration’s zeal to lease Canyon Country had taken its toll on BLM Price Field Office Recreation Planner Dennis Willis, who expressed his frustration that the BLM has had little respect for how oil and gas drilling will impact cultural and natural resources on public lands.

“It is like we are playing in some reality game show where deceit is just part of the game,” Willis said to Kloor, criticizing the BLM. “Right now, BLM would make an omelette with California condor eggs if the oil and gas industry asked for breakfast. Everything including people, places, flora, fauna, art and history are mere impediments to energy production and most importantly corporate profit.”

The delay in issuing the leases sold Friday doesn’t mean the fight to protect these areas is over.

“We will get our day in court with the BLM, and we will do all we can to protect Utah’s unspoiled landscapes,” TWS and its partner groups said in a statement Friday. “Yet, President Bush can still do something to save these areas. He can take Utah’s unprotected wilderness off the auction block for good. This is not a mess that should be left to the Obama administration.”

photo: Upper Desolation Canyon, proposed wilderness at risk to oil and gas leasing. Photo by Ray Bloxham, Courtesy SUWA.