Conservationists Call For Continued Protection of Fragile Utah Lands

For Immediate Release

Conservation Groups
Contact: 

Stephen Bloch, SUWA, 801.428.3981, steve@suwa.org

Conservationists Call For Continued Protection of Fragile Utah Lands

WASHINGTON - As
the Department of Interior and Bureau of Land Management evaluate the impacts
that oil and gas development would have on red rock wilderness lands in Utah,
conservation groups are calling for ongoing protection of these treasured
areas. Following the Bush Administration's attempted last-minute auction
of 77 parcels of lands last year, the courts ruled that BLM did not follow
proper procedures. Today, the DOI received recommendations on the
propriety of the lease sale, including recommendations to improve the decision-making
process. As these recommendations are evaluated, several groups involved in the
lawsuit are working to make sure that these valuable natural resources are
protected.

Today's
announced report follows a decision by federal
district court judge Ricardo Urbina

on January 17, 2009 issuing a temporary restraining order prohibiting BLM from
issuing these leases.

"This
sale was a last minute scheme by political appointees to sell controversial
leases in stunningly beautiful areas right before the clock ran out on the Bush
administration," said Stephen Bloch, Conservation Director for the
Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, a group involved in the pending litigation.
"Secretary of the Interior Salazar, together with new BLM leadership, now
has the guidance and details needed to reverse a very bad decision and protect
some of America's most iconic lands, including the White River, Nine Mile
Canyon, and lands close to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks and Dinosaur
National Monument."

Key acknowledgments and recommendations from today's
statements from the Department of the Interior and the report include:

  • Mistakes Were Made:
    Secretary Salazar acknowledged that there was a "headlong rush" to
    sell these 77 leases and that Utah BLM was operating under a misconception that
    oil and gas leasing and development should be prioritized. To the
    contrary, the Report submitted by Deputy Secretary Hayes and the
    Secretary's comments confirm that this is a "new day" for the
    management of our public lands and that protecting wildlife, wilderness, and
    cultural resources are equally important. The report notes several key
    flaws in the Utah resource management plans that made this sale possible.
  • Air Quality Impacts Must Be Considered:
    The report recognized that BLM has simply not done its homework when it comes
    to evaluating the impacts of energy development to air quality. The
    report correctly notes that BLM needs to work collaboratively with other
    federal and state agencies to obtain real data about air quality conditions and
    then perform a quantitative review of that data. These are critically important
    steps for protecting human health and the health of our natural
    environment.
  • There Are Many Values and Uses Beyond
    Oil And Gas; New Guidance Is Needed:
    The report confirmed that
    there is a crucial lack of consistency and coordination in BLM's oil and
    gas leasing program and that BLM must take a more proactive role in managing
    it. Assistant Secretary Lewis acknowledged that there are a host of important
    values and uses of our public lands, of which oil and gas is one. She will be
    leading the effort to provide the BLM state and field offices with clear
    guidance for how to review nominated leases and how to balance competing
    resources like recreation and wildlife with energy development.

The need
for new guidance was underscored by findings in the report that field office
employees believed they were obligated to give greater deference to leasing
than to protection of other uses and that BLM could play a greater role in
controlling the lands and conditions in leasing decisions.

"The
current misunderstandings are a direct result of the Bush
Administration's policies making oil and gas the dominant use on our
public lands and turning over control of leasing to the oil and gas
industry," said Nada Culver, Senior Counsel in The Wilderness
Society's BLM Action Center. "We are heartened so see the
Department of Interior reclaiming its authority and responsibility to manage
these lands for all Americans. We hope that the Secretary will take this
opportunity to protect the irreplaceable wilderness and cultural values of
these places, which  overshadow their potential contribution to our nation's
need for fossil fuels."

An
analysis conducted by The Wilderness Society

found that the 77 leases under review would contribute less than 2 days worth
of natural gas and less than 2 hours of oil at current national consumption
levels. Conservationists believe the production results are far outweighed by
the damage these proposed leases could have on public lands and the values from
safeguarding them.

A June 2009 report prepared by Deputy Interior
Secretary David Hayes confirmed that BLM did not follow ‘standard
operating procedure' when it rushed ahead with the sale-specifically
it did not consult with the National Park Service before releasing the final
sale list and did not ultimately listen to many concerns raised by NPS or the
Environmental Protection Agency about things like air quality. Today's
report clarifies those previous findings. "We are glad to see that the
interests of the National Park Service, and really of all Americans, in
protecting the experiences and values of our national parks are recognized in
this report," said David Nimkin, Southwest Regional Director of the
National Parks Conservation Association. "We hope to see the Department
of Interior confirm its commitment to honoring the national parks and the Park
Service's expertise in managing them, including by safeguarding them from
damaging oil and gas drilling."

BLM
cannot issue any of the 77 leases without running afoul of Judge Urbina's
decision.  Pending litigation continues to focus on the underlying
resource management plans that made the sale possible in the first place. 
Judge Urbina said in his January order that the conservation groups had
demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits of the case that BLM's
resource management plans violated the law.

Following
are comments from other conservation groups involved in the pending lawsuit:

"The
77 leases are the tip of the iceberg. We hope that BLM will take the time to
reconsider the legal flaws in the underlying resource management plans as
well," said Robin Cooley, staff attorney with Earthjustice. 

"We're pleased to see the BLM reconsider its decision to open
these lands to drilling. Drilling is not appropriate on the pristine public
lands surrounding places like Arches National Park," said Sierra Club
representative Myke Bybee. "We don't need to destroy our natural treasures
with drilling. Instead of increasing our reliance on fossil fuels with more
drilling, we can power America with clean energy that will create jobs and
infuse new life into our economy."

"Stopping
the leasing of these treasured lands to protect them from devastation by oil
and gas companies was the right thing to do," said Amy Mall, Senior
Policy Analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "The Department
of Interior should move forward with clean energy solutions that will protect
our pristine wild lands and vital wildlife areas, and cut carbon pollution --
drilling for oil and gas in America's western lands doesn't fit
with that objective."

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* Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance * The Wilderness Society * Earthjustice *
* NRDC * Sierra Club * National Parks Conservation Association * Grand Canyon Trust *

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