SALT LAKE CITY, Utah - February 16 - The Utah BLM is preparing to auction off sensitive areas in Price and Vernal resource areas for oil and gas development, while concurrently asking the public how it should protect these special lands to save wildlife and ancient petroglyphs.
Last Friday, BLM closed its public comment period on whether and how special places should be protected as Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACECs) in Draft resource management plans for the Price and Vernal Field Offices while at the same time agency personnel were putting the finishing touches on a list of parcels to be turned over to the oil and gas industry in the February 21st lease sale.
"BLM is talking out of both sides of their mouth on this issue," stated Liz Thomas of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "How can we have any faith in the public comment process when BLM is actively seeking to lease and develop areas it acknowledges are worthy of protection?"
Public lands managed by Price and Vernal BLM offices contain amazing resources, such as Nine Mile Canyon with its unparalleled collection of rock art, Upper Desolation Canyon with its popular river recreation, and habitat for a wealth of wildlife and rare plants such as the Graham's penstemon, which was recently proposed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for Endangered Species Act listing.
By the BLM's own admission, many of these lands have special values and are eligible for ACEC designation - areas having "fragile, sensitive, rare, irreplaceable, exemplary and unique" values. Under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), BLM is obligated to prioritize designation and protection of qualified ACECs, such as Nile Mile Canyon.
During its recent comment period, BLM received thousands of comments supporting designation of these special places as ACECs, as a way to protect these unique places, artifacts and species from oil and gas drilling and off-road vehicle (ORV) impacts. BLM's upcoming lease sale, however, includes more than 100,000 acres of these special lands.
"If the controversial upcoming lease sale and BLM 's proposals for the Price and Vernal areas indicate anything, it is that Utah's public lands are rapidly losing ground to development and special industry groups," stated Suzanne Jones of The Wilderness Society. "The public in public lands seems to be diminishing as quickly as the landscapes we love and value."
The lack of protection seems even more questionable when BLM has repeatedly acknowledged that there are existing impacts from oil and gas development and ORVs, and that the damage can be expected to continue and/or increase, thereby endangering the region's wild and primitive character, threatening wildlife populations, and inviting damage to cultural and archaeological resources.
"BLM is out of step with the public opinion regarding the protection of these areas," stated Thomas. "Citizens and conservation groups have proposed balanced management plans (Castle Country Heritage Plan - Price and Greater Dinosaur/Book Cliffs Heritage Plan - Vernal) for these areas, but they have largely been ignored by the BLM in favor of oil and gas development."
At stake in these planning processes is over 2 million acres of potential wilderness (approximately 490,000 acres in Vernal, and 1,540,000 acres in Price) - each containing important watersheds, scenic values, wildlife habitat and cultural resources - including the San Rafael River, fantastic rock formations and critical riparian ecosystems of the White River (a favorite among canoeists), and the ancient pinyon forest of the Sweetwater Watershed.