Bush-Era Oil and Gas Leases Near Utah Parks Canceled
WASHINGTON, DC, February 4, 2009 (ENS) - Sales of oil and gas leases on 77 parcels of land near national parks and monuments in Utah were halted today by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. The parcels were auctioned by the Bureau of Land Management in December 2008.

"I have directed the BLM not to accept the bids on these 77 parcels," Salazar said at a news conference. "The environmental review process followed, in our view, was not complete."

Covering 132,000 acres, the lease parcels are located near Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, Dinosaur National Monument, and Nine Mile Canyon.

"We have concerns about consultation with the National Park Service and other factors such as air quality in the vicinity of the parks," Salazar told reporters.

Salazar said he has directed the BLM to return the approximately $6 million collected for the leases after the December 19 lease sale.

Canyonlands National Park's eroded canyons, mesas and buttes by the Colorado River and Green River (Photo by V.T. Veen)

He explained that this decision is in compliance with existing processes and authorities of the Secretary of the Interior, adding that government lease sale contracts are not complete until the BLM formally accepts the bids, "which it has not done with these bids."

In addition, Salazar noted, on January 17 a federal district court in Washington, DC granted a motion for a temporary restraining order on these leases in a case brought by a coalition of Utah and national environmental groups representing more than one million Americans.

In their lawsuit, the groups describe the potential damages of the sale. "Development of these leases will degrade air quality at Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park and Dinosaur National Monument. It will lead to construction of well pads, pipelines and roads in some of Utah's most impressive wilderness quality landscapes such as the Desolation Canyon wilderness character area ... one of the largest roadless areas in the lower forty-eight states."

"These activities will also harm Nine Mile Canyon, an area that BLM describes as 'the longest outdoor art gallery in the world' because of its substantial concentration of prehistoric archeological sites and rock art," the lawsuit states.

Salazar said he and his officials will "take a fresh look" at oil and gas leasing on these 77 parcels, but said they could be subject to leasing in the future.

"That doesn't mean that at some point in time there won't be additional leases with respect with these 77 parcels," the secretary said today. "It may be there is a portion or even a large part of it that will be subject to a new lease sale in the future," he said.

Prehistoric rock art in Dinosaur National Monument (Photo by Jeff Hayes)
Still, the environmental groups who have fought these leases are encouraged by Salazar's action.

"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, a trustee of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a group within the suing coalition.

"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," said Redford, an actor, director, founder of the Sundance Film Festival and Utah resident.

"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 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."

"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, which has found oil and gas leasing for years. "This decision rescues the stunning landscapes of Desolation Canyon and the White River from the ravages of oil and gas development."

Aerial view of the Green River emerging from Desolation and Gray Canyons, Utah (Photo by Roy Tennant)

"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."

Secretary Salazar told reporters that he has been charged by President Barack Obama to "clean up" the Department of the Interior. "Ninety-nine percent of DOI employees are wonderful people who do a great job, but the policy decisions were driven out of the White House," the secretary said.

"My charge is to implement a reform agenda," he said. "We will do that together as a team working closely with the President."

"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 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. "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 December Utah lease sale followed the BLM's equally controversial issuance in October of six management plans for public lands across eastern and southern Utah, which opened up much of red rock country to oil and gas drilling and off-road vehicles.

The conservationists also plan to legally challenge these plans, which affect 11 million acres of public land.

"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."

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.