Uproar Over Federal Drilling Leases Next To Parks

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by
Associated Press

Uproar Over Federal Drilling Leases Next To Parks

by
Paul Foy

The Bureau of Land Management has proposed selling oil and gas leases in wilderness areas of Utah, including this rock outcropping, Hatch Point, out side Canyonlands National Park in the southeastern part of the state. (By Kevin Walker -- Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance Via Associated Press)

SALT LAKE CITY - The view of Delicate Arch natural bridge - an
unspoiled landmark so iconic it's on Utah's license plates - could one
day include a drilling platform under a proposal that environmentalists
call a Bush administration "fire sale" for the oil and gas industry.

Late
on Election Day, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management announced a Dec. 19
auction of more than 50,000 acres of oil and gas parcels alongside or
within view of Arches National Park and two other redrock national
parks in Utah: Dinosaur and Canyonlands.

The National Park
Service's top official in the state calls it "shocking and disturbing"
and says his agency wasn't properly notified. Environmentalists call it
a "fire sale" for the oil and gas industry by a departing
administration.

Officials of the BLM, which oversees millions of
acres of public land in the West, say the sale is nothing unusual, and
one is "puzzled" that the Park Service is upset.

"We find it
shocking and disturbing," said Cordell Roy, the chief Park Service
administrator in Utah. "They added 51,000 acres of tracts near Arches,
Dinosaur and Canyonlands without telling us about it. That's 40 tracts
within four miles of these parks."

Top aides to Interior
Secretary Dirk Kempthorne stepped into the fray, ordering the sister
agencies to make amends. His press secretary, Shane Wolfe, told The
Associated Press that deputy Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett "resolved
the dispute within 24 hours" last week.

A compromise ordered by
the Interior Department requires the BLM to "take quite seriously" the
Park Service's objections, said Wolfe.

However, the BLM didn't
promise to pull any parcels from the sale, and in an interview after
the supposed truce, BLM state director Selma Sierra was defiant, saying
she saw nothing wrong with drilling near national parks.

"I'm puzzled the Park Service has been as upset as they are," said Sierra.

"There
are already many parcels leased around the parks. It's not like they've
never been leased," she said. "I don't see it as something we are doing
to undermine the Park Service."

Roy and conservation groups
dispute that, saying never before has the bureau bunched drilling
parcels on the fence lines of national parks.

"This is the fire
sale, the Bush administration's last great gift to the oil and gas
industry," said Stephen Bloch, a staff attorney for the Southern Utah
Wilderness Alliance.

"The tracts of land offered here, next to
Arches National Park or above Desolation Canyon, these are the crown
jewels of America's lands that the BLM is offering to the highest
bidder," he said.

An examination of the parcels, superimposing
low-resolution government graphics onto Google Earth maps, shows that
in one case drilling parcels bordering Arches National Park are just
1.3 miles from Delicate Arch.

"If you're standing at Delicate
Arch, like thousands of people do every year, and you're looking
through the arch, you could see drill pads on the hillside behind it.
That's how ridiculous this proposed lease sale is," said Franklin Seal,
a spokesman for the environmental group Wildland CPR.

In all, the BLM is moving to open 359,000 more acres in Utah to drilling.

Other
Utah leases that are certain to draw objections from conservation
groups include high cliffs along whitewater sections of Desolation
Canyon, which is little changed since explorer John Wesley Powell
remarked in 1896 on "a region of wildest desolation" while boating down
the Green River to the Grand Canyon.

Others extend to plateaus
populated by big game atop Nine Mile Canyon, site of thousands of
ancient rock art panels, Moab's famous Slick Rock Trail and a
campground popular with thousands of mountain bikers.

Sierra, the
BLM's director for Utah, said the Park Service was consulted on the
broad management plans that made the sale of parcels next to national
parks permissible, even if it was not given notice on which specific
leases were being offered. She apologized for that omission but said
notice wasn't legally required.

She said national parks want to keep oil and gas wells five to 10 miles away "but that policy doesn't exist."

Roy said the standard for an eyesore visible from a national park turns on what a "casual" observer might see.

The
hostility carried over into an e-mail exchange between Sierra and Mike
Snyder, the Denver-based regional Park Service director, who noted his
agency's demand that BLM pull 40 to 45 drill parcels from the auction
list. "You stated that you were not willing to do this," Snyder wrote
Nov. 6.

Within hours, Sierra responded "These decisions and the
lands available for leasing should come to no one's surprise,"
according to copies of the e-mails obtained from her office.

Sierra
said she instructed her district and field managers to educate the park
superintendents on why drilling is OK "adjacent to and near the park
boundaries."

In the e-mail, Sierra boasted of having "a very good
working relationship" with Roy, the federal coordinator in Utah for the
Park Service, but in an interview he said he had "no idea this sale was
coming down the pike."

Roy said that when he asked Sierra what
was going on, she replied: "We added some tracts, sorry we didn't
notify you. We can take up these concerns when we issue" drilling
permits. He said his response was: "Holy cow."

Sierra didn't
dispute this account, but said "I don't think I was in a mood that
dismissed his concerns lightly." She said she had promised only to
review the objections, parcel by parcel, before the auction is held
Dec. 19.

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