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Don't Spoil the Soil
Page 2

Belnap worries about Jeeps, and she worries about fat-tired bikes and Vibram-soled hikers, but there's a larger threat. The Bush administration's National Energy Plan calls for fast-tracking oil and gas exploration in the Rocky Mountain west, opening wide public lands to industry -- purportedly to meet increased demand and decrease our dependence on foreign oil. "When an application for permission to drill (APD) comes in," read a January 2002 memo from the director for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Utah to its field offices, streamlining approvals should be "their No. 1 priority."

BLM's Utah division of natural resources approved a record 558 of these applications in the state in 2001, then another 512 in 2002. With even more streamlined procedures due in the future, the numbers will go even higher.

Photo of touristsIn the rush to expedite permits, compliance with environmental laws is getting short shrift. "Because the oil and gas industries think the environmental reviews are too much of a hassle, the agencies aren't being as thorough," says Doug Pflugh, of Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm. Now, when companies file an application for permission to drill, the result is almost always a "finding of no significant impact." Local and national environmental groups have challenged a few projects for having received inadequate environmental review (the National Environmental Policy Act requires all federal agencies to make detailed assessments of any project on public land likely to have environmental consequences). But opponents don't have the resources to keep tabs on all the proposed projects, so most of them go unchallenged.

One of these projects, just a stone's throw from where Belnap and I sit near Canyonlands National Park, dismayed local activists. It was early 2001, and the BLM had, six months earlier, closed 23,000 acres adjacent to Canyonlands due to soil damage, and had limited Jeeps, hikers, and bikers to existing roads. Environmentalists applauded the move. Then, those same acres were opened to a convoy of vibroseis trucks -- 50,000-pound behemoths that emit shockwaves to paint sonic portraits of oil and gas potential below. The thumper trucks broke through mature crusts and ripped trees and shrubs up by their roots. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) filed an appeal in federal court for a temporary restraining order, but it was denied. By the time they were finished with their seismic mapping, the trucks had carved 175 miles of new road over 36 square miles of high desert. Folks who had obediently been sticking to established trails were starting to feel like suckers.

In southern Utah, it takes a good map and a compass to say where federal parks (drilling forbidden) end and state or BLM lands (drilling allowed) begin. The towering red spires and pink mesas stretch in every direction. From the average visitor's perspective, the land inside and outside the national parks looks the same: stunningly beautiful. In his 1960 "Wilderness Letter," which advocated federal protection of wilderness, Wallace Stegner described this landscape as both lovely and terrible: "harshly and beautifully colored, broken and worn until its bones are exposed, its great sky without a smudge of taint from Technocracy, and in hidden corners and pockets under its cliffs the sudden poetry of springs."

Photo of Canyonlands National Park"We ought to be protecting all of this," Liz Thomas says to me later, making a hundred-mile gesture over state-owned mesas and buttes. Thomas is the Moab field attorney for SUWA, which is trying to win passage of America's Redrock Wilderness Act. The proposed act encompasses more than 9 million undeveloped and largely roadless acres, many of which surround and connect eight of Utah's nine national parks, monuments, and recreation areas. The wilderness would include vast canyon systems, slickrock narrows, tablelands, cliff walls, mountain ranges, and desert riparian zones, most of them in the southern half of the state.

Even James Watt, secretary of the Interior under President Reagan, believed in protecting these wild places. But this past April, Interior Secretary Gale Norton, in closed-door negotiations with Governor Michael O. Leavitt of Utah (now Bush's nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency), quietly settled an old lawsuit, in effect opening up 6 million acres of wilderness for drilling, mining, and off-road vehicles.

BioGems: Save Utah's Redrock Wilderness

Last-Chance Outdoor Adventures in the West

FAQ: The Bush Energy Plan & America's Public Lands

The Bush Record: Energy & Public Lands

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Photos: top, Kevin Zacher; bottom, Tom Till

OnEarth. Fall 2003
Copyright 2003 by the Natural Resources Defense Council