WASHINGTON - Today, Robert Redford joined members of Congress and a coalition of environmental, preservation and business groups in an effort to stop the Bureau of Land Management from auctioning Utah wilderness to oil and gas companies.
At a news conference, the environmental and preservation groups led by Natural Resources Defense Council, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, and Earthjustice announced that they are taking legal action against the Bureau of Land Management to halt the leasing of more than 110,000 acres of land near Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, Dinosaur National Monument, and Nine Mile Canyon.
"You can't put a price on silence or solitude," said Redford, actor, director and NRDC trustee. "Future generations deserve to experience the wildness and beauty of these lands, and to leave them as a legacy to generations that follow."
The Utah Bureau of Land Management has conducted a series of controversial lease sales throughout the Bush administration, but the upcoming sale has been unusually contentious because of the sensitivity of the wilderness lands and because BLM inadequately consulted with the National Park Service.
In November, the Park Service asked BLM to omit 93 parcels of land that would impact parks and BLM has since deferred the sale of 33 of these parcels.
Other plaintiff groups are the Grand Canyon Trust, the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, the National Parks Conservation Association, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Their complaint filed with federal court in the District of Columbia seeks an injunction to stop the lease sale, announced on December 12 and set to take place Friday in Salt Lake City.
They 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 roadess 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.
"Nine Mile Canyon is often called the world's longest art gallery because it contains the nation's densest collection of prehistoric rock art sites, including over 10,000 Native American rock art images," said Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
"We included Nine Mile Canyon on the list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places because it's being damaged, perhaps permanently, by oil and gas drilling-related truck traffic near the canyon," he said. "BLM agrees that dust and chemicals from the traffic are damaging this fragile place, which makes its decision to approve even more leases - and more truck traffic - bewildering."
These lands were made available to industry in late October and early November through six resource management plans that will affect three million acres of public lands.
The plaintiff groups argue that these plans were hastily approved so the leases could be sold before President-elect Barack Obama takes office on January 20, 2009.
"The Bush administration has rushed to get these leases out the door," said Sharon Buccino, senior attorney for NRDC. "In their midnight maneuvering, BLM failed to complete the analysis required by federal law for the protection of America's natural and cultural treasures."
Congressmen Brian Baird of Washington, Maurice Hinchey of New York, and Rush Holt of New Jersey, all Democrats, are leading the effort on Capitol Hill to stop the auction, which is scheduled to take place on Friday.
"This sale is an early Christmas present to the oil and gas industry, from a lame duck administration with one foot already out the door," said Baird. "The way the Bush administration has tried to do this in secret is simply outrageous. Secretary [Dirk] Kempthorne must put a stop to this. Once these pristine wilderness lands are destroyed we can never get them back."
Congressman Holt said, "Some people have criticized this as a gift to the oil companies. I think it is more a theft from the people. It is not too late for the Bureau of Land Management to overturn this. If they won't, maybe the courts will."
"BLM cut corners on this lease sale, which will do nothing to lower the price that Americans pay at the pump or to heat their homes," said Stephen Bloch, conservation director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "What it will do, however, is leave a legacy of ruin in some of Utah's most iconic landscapes."
"Although the short-term fix is to cancel the lease sale, in the longer term, we will be urging the Obama administration to revise six recently finalized BLM land-use plans for Utah and make sure no new leases are issued on lands deserving wilderness or other protection in the meantime," said the Wilderness Society's Dave Alberswerth. "If not fixed, the land-use plans would cement a short-sighted legacy of destruction for these irreplaceable lands."
Robin Cooley, the Earthjustice attorney who is handling the lawsuit, said, "Bush is giving oil and gas companies the Christmas of a lifetime by robbing the American people of their Western natural heritage and handing it over to those who will gut it for personal gain."