WASHINGTON - US environmentalists have been celebrating after Interior Secretary Ken Salazar reversed a move by the previous administration to lease wilderness land in Utah to energy companies for exploration.
Salazar on Wednesday ordered the Bureau of Land Management "not to accept the bids on 77 parcels" that, he said, the Bush administration had rushed to sell off in its dying days in office.
The lands involved sit "at the doorstep of some of our nation's most treasured landscapes in Utah," including Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Parks, Dinosaur National Monument and Nine Mile Canyon, Salazar said.
Actor, environmental activist and Utah resident Robert Redford called the move "a sign that after eight long years of rapacious greed and backdoor dealings, our government is returning a sense of balance to the way it manages our lands."
"I'm celebrating wildly," said Sharon Buccino, a senior attorney for the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), of which Redford is a trustee.
"The Bush administration left a huge mess on Salazar's doorstep and this is a step in the right direction," she said, lauding the new interior secretary for "recognizing that we need to move toward clean energy and away from reliance on fossil fuels."
The Interior Department was a "linchpin of the new administration's strategy for dealing with both the economy and climate crises," said Buccino, referring to a pledge by President Barack Obama to double US production of alternative energy in three years and help drag the economy out of recession.
Obama's immediate predecessor, George W. Bush, had pressed Congress to lift bans on offshore oil prospecting and backed moves to allow oil exploration in wilderness areas including Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Although the new administration was setting out in the right direction, several issues still need to be addressed, including "failures to stem growing and serious air pollution from oil and gas drilling and serious problems with protecting cultural resources," Buccino said.
David Garbett, a staff attorney at the Southern Utah Wilderness Association (SUWA), described how one of the companies eyeing the land up for grabs, the Bill Barrett Corporation, had submitted a proposal to build 800 natural gas wells in Nine Mile Canyon, renowned for its ancient Native American rock art.
"Part of the plan was to create temporary worker camps that would last three to four years in an area that is completely undeveloped, totally remote, one of the most spectacular areas in the state," he said.
"We're not asking for no development. We are asking that areas that the Bureau of Land Management has identified as having wilderness characteristics" be left alone, he said.
But the energy industry criticized the cancellation of the leases and contested Salazar's and the environmentalists' claims that the Bush administration had forced through the lease sale.
"This wasn't rushed or last minute. The Bush administration took a lot of time to analyze environmental impact and put in additional environmental protection," said Kathleen Sgamma, director of government affairs for the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States (IPAMS).
"The lease sale ... wasn't a gift to industry. It was part of a regular quarterly lease sale that the Bureau of Land Management is mandated by law to hold," she added.
Natural gas from Utah and other western states in the Rocky Mountain range provides around 27 percent of natural gas used in the United States, and has minimal impact on the environment, said Sgamma.
"For that small impact we would get the energy we need to back up renewables, and it's a secure American source of energy. The energy industry will continue to be engaged on this lease sale," she said.