Victory in Utah: Court Orders Government to Halt Land Leasing

Ely Creek Falls in Dinosaur National Monument, Utah. Courtesy NPS.

We’ve got some great news to share about the ongoing struggle to save beloved Utah wild lands from oil and gas drilling.

After months of public protest, a U.S. District Court judge has ruled to temporarily halt last-minute Bush Administration leases of sensitive lands in southern Utah.

Judge Ricardo M. Urbina ruled to protect more than 110,000 acres of Utah wilderness from oil and gas companies on Jan. 17.

Urbina granted a temporary restraining order that prevents the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) from moving forward with leases that the agency sold to oil and gas companies in December. A coalition of conservation groups, including The Wilderness Society, filed the lawsuit Dec. 17 to prevent the leasing of these public lands.

In his ruling, Judge Urbina found that the conservation groups "have shown a likelihood of success on the merits" and that the "'development of domestic energy resources' is far outweighed by the public interest in avoiding irreparable damage to public lands and the environment."

The merits of the case will be heard later in 2009. Until that time, BLM is prohibited from cashing the checks issued for the contested acres of Utah wilderness.

"This legal victory comes at a great time, as we begin work with a new administration that we are confident will be much more thoughtful about how we treat our public lands," said Suzanne Jones, Central Rockies regional director for The Wilderness Society.

"Rather than unnecessarily drilling every last acre, we need to promote forward looking energy development that protects our land, water, wildlife, and communities," Jones said.

The contested areas near Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, Dinosaur National Monument, and Nine Mile Canyon include lands that contain the nation's greatest density of ancient rock art and other cultural resources. These lands were recently made available to industry through hastily approved resource management plans that essentially allowed BLM to declare open season on 3 million acres of public lands in Utah, including hundreds of thousands of acres of remote and rugged redrock wildlands.

In the Price, Vernal and Moab BLM field areas, where most of the contested parcels exist, the new management plans together call for more than 8,500 new oil and natural gas wells, potentially putting drilling rigs within sight of national parks.

In fact, analyses by The Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center, which played a leading role in analyzing and protesting six management plan revisions in Utah, show that most wildlands and other special places could have been protected from development while still allowing for most of the expected energy development to occur in each BLM field area.

The Utah BLM has conducted a series of controversial lease sales throughout the Bush administration, but the December 2008 sale was unusually contentious because of the sensitivity of the wilderness lands and because the BLM inadequately consulted with the National Park Service.

photo: Ely Creek Falls in Dinosaur National Monument, Utah. Courtesy NPS.