WASHINGTON – More than 100,000 acres of Utah wilderness will be protected from oil and gas drilling after the Department of Interior announced today that it will cancel 77 leases issued under the Bush administration. This is among the first actions taken by the Obama administration to protect America’s wild lands. Since December, a coalition of environmental groups – led by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Earthjustice, and the Wilderness Society – have 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.
"I see this announcement as a sign that after eight long years of rapacious greed and backdoor dealings, our government is returning a sense of balance to the way it manages our lands," said Robert Redford, an NRDC trustee. "American citizens once again have a say in the fate of their public lands, which in this case happen to be some of the last pristine places on earth."
“This bold action by Secretary Salazar reaffirms the priceless value of America’s wilderness and signals a new day for Washington,” said Sharon Buccino, senior attorney for NRDC. “The Department of Interior's swift work will protect 100,000 acres of Utah’s wild lands, which are part of America's great natural heritage. The development of these lands would not have had any real impact on our energy security and we don't need to sacrifice the West’s last wild places at the hands of the oil industry.”
“Secretary Salazar isn’t just sparing some remarkable Western lands from destruction – he’s bringing common sense back into wilderness management,” said Robin Cooley, an Earthjustice attorney who represented the conservation groups with NRDC and SUWA. “At best these lands will produce only 1.5 hours of the oil we use in a whole year. The oil industry will profit, not America,” said Robin Cooley, an Earthjustice attorney who – along with NRDC and SUWA attorneys – represent the conservation groups.
“This is a critical first step to bringing balance back to public lands management in Utah’s remarkable redrock country,” said Stephen Bloch, conservation director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “This decision rescues the stunning landscapes of Desolation Canyon and the White River from the ravages of oil and gas development.”
“The Secretary's action is very gratifying,” said Nada Culver of The Wilderness Society. “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.”
"We're pleased that Secretary Salazar recognizes the value of national treasures like Arches National Park and Nine Mile Canyon." said Sierra Club representative Myke Bybee. "We hope this decision marks a change of course at the Interior Department. We are looking forward to working with Secretary Salazar and the Obama administration to invest in efficiency and the kind of clean energy that will bring economic benefits to local communities, while protecting America's wilderness legacy."
"Secretary Salazar’s decision sends a strong message about the Obama administration’s approach to preserving America’s public lands," said Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "Today’s action ensures that the damage being inflicted on cultural resources near Utah’s Nine Mile Canyon — often called the ‘world’s longest art gallery’ because of the density of ancient rock art panels there — will not be exacerbated by additional oil and gas leases. This is a great decision, and indicates that Secretary Salazar and President Obama take very seriously their responsibility as stewards of our public lands."
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 today’s action by the Department of Interior, 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. Cancelling the leases is a critical first step, but the problem will come up again unless problems in the RMPs 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 RMPs were authored during the last days of the Bush administration and have serious ramifications for 7 million acres of public lands.