SALT LAKE CITY, Utah - February 8 - The Utah BLM's February 21 oil and gas lease sale will include 3,700 acres just west of the Green River in Labyrinth Canyon, an area that is highly popular among families and river runners alike. The sale also includes more than 100,000 acres of land proposed for wilderness, mostly in the San Rafael River and San Rafael Desert regions, a remote area of narrow slot canyons, shifting sand dunes, sculpted rock, and miles of the roadless desert spaces.
"I have a number of clients who come back each year to do this same stretch of the river primarily because it is so peaceful," said Red River Canoe Company co-owner Theresa Butler, who submitted a protest with the Bureau of Land Management over the lease sale. "These leases directly threaten the interests of these clients and this aspect of my business. Labyrinth Canyon is an unsuitable location for additional energy development."
"Our clients choose Labyrinth Canyon because it is largely unspoiled," said Denise Oblak, co-owner of Moab's Canyon Voyages and president of the Utah Guides and Outfitters. "Right now, you can hear birds and coyotes call, and you can see the stars at night from your river camp. With so many recent leases that have gone undrilled, I fail to see the urgency in adding more potential development to the list."
John Wesley Powell extolled the virtues of Labyrinth Canyon after his voyage of discovery in 1869, and Utah's official state tourism website describes the canyon as an "amazing" area where River users can enjoy a landscape "unchanged since Powell saw it." The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), a long-standing permitted operator on the Green River, has run extended river expeditions ending in Labyrinth Canyon for more than 25 years and protested parcels adjacent to the river in the belief that development in that section of the river corridor would impair the wilderness quality of the river experience.
The lease sale will also include more than 103,000 acres of land proposed by citizens for protection as wilderness, including more than 10,000 acres that the BLM called wilderness quality in its 1996-99 inventory of Utah BLM lands. If the 100,000-plus acres are leased, it would roughly double the entire amount of Citizen Proposed Wilderness that has been auctioned by the BLM since the April 2003 "anti-wilderness" deal between the state of Utah and the Interior Department.
"Once again, the BLM and the Department of the Interior are rushing to lease and develop as much public land as they can, as fast as they can," said Stephen Bloch, staff attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "And once again, BLM is selling off public treasures that are of great historical and natural significance."
The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Wilderness Society, NRDC, and the Grand Canyon Trust have submitted a formal protest to BLM over the inclusion of sale parcels, such as the lands in Labyrinth Canyon, the San Rafael River and San Rafael Desert region, and a 360 acre parcel right next to Dinosaur National Monument in northeastern Utah. The Dinosaur National Monument Superintendent specifically asked the BLM to withdraw this last parcel because oil and gas development there "would impair views to the south of Dinosaur National Monument." BLM refused to do so and is planning to offer this land for lease.
Like most Western states, Utah has a surplus of BLM lands that have been leased for oil and gas development but are not in production, as well as a surplus of applications for permit to drill. Between 2001 and 2005, the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining approved 5,077 permits from industry to drill new oil and gas wells in Utah. At the end of 2005, there were 2,044 approved drill permits from that five-year period that had not yet been drilled. According to Bloch, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance has challenged fewer than half of one percent of these drill projects.
The Utah sale will come on the heels of another highly controversial BLM oil and gas sale on February 9th in Colorado. That sale drew fire from members of Colorado's congressional delegation, citizen groups, and conservationists because it was slated to include roughly 600 acres in the city of Grand Junction's watershed and about 11,000 acres in the town of Palisade's watershed. It also included wild areas in Bull Canyon, Grand Hogback, McKenna Peak, Skull Creek, and Kannah Creek. Yesterday, BLM announced that it would remove some parcels along the San Miguel River.
"It is short-sighted to sell off sensitive lands in Utah and Colorado when we have such a backlog of permits," said Suzanne Jones of The Wilderness Society. "We have consistently asked the BLM to withdraw only the most sensitive lands from their lease sales. As development skyrockets, the oil and gas companies and BLM need to take a more prudent approach to gas development."