Salt Lake City, Utah (October 30, 2008) -- On election day, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) plans to announce that it will sell oil and gas leases on areas in eastern Utah, including sections of Desolation Canyon, White River, Diamond Mountain, Bourdette Draw, and other lands in the Nine Mile Canyon region. These public lands had largely been off-limits to new oil and gas leasing because of a series of federal court and administrative decisions overturning earlier illegal BLM leasing decisions.
The BLM had previously declared these pristine lands to be wilderness-caliber landscapes. Photographs of these special places can be viewed at www.suwa.org/ElectionDayTurkey
“Previous administrations proved that there can be a balance between wilderness protection and oil and gas development,” said former BLM Director Jim Baca. “Unfortunately, the Bush Administration has worked tirelessly to appease the oil and gas industry no matter the cost to our national heritage of wild and untamed places. Extraordinary places like Desolation Canyon deserve to be protected.”
The December 19 sale threatens large swaths of several magnificent public landscapes, including Upper Desolation Canyon, where the Green River meanders through hundreds of thousands of acres of unprotected wilderness in the northern Book Cliffs. Desolation Canyon was named and apparently first described by John Wesley Powell during his historic expedition in 1869 down the Green and Colorado rivers to the Grand Canyon. Upon entering the canyon, Powell described the area in his diary as the “wildest” and a “wilderness.” In its 1999 re-inventory of the area, the BLM wrote of Desolation Canyon, “This is a place where a visitor can experience true solitude -- where the forces of nature continue to shape the colorful, rugged landscape.” The BLM also cited the area’s “…cultural, scenic, geologic, botanical, and wildlife values.”
“What makes this action by the Interior Department so deplorable is that BLM itself determined these areas to be wilderness-quality lands,” said Stephen Bloch, conservation director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “Nonetheless, BLM is condemning these lands to a future of oil rigs and gas pipelines and almost certain disqualification from future wilderness designation.”
Like most Western states, Utah has a surplus of BLM lands that have been leased for oil and gas development but are not in production, as well as a surplus of applications for permission to drill. At the end of fiscal year 2006, there were approximately 4.6 million acres of BLM- managed lands in Utah under lease, but just more than 1 million acres in production. In addition, between January 1, 2001 and September 30, 2008, the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining approved 9,724 permits to drill new oil and gas wells in Utah. As of September 30, there were 3,640 approved drill permits from that nearly eight-year period that had not yet been drilled. Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and other conservation groups have challenged only a handful of drilling projects during this period.
“This giveaway to the oil companies on the way out of town borders on criminal malfeasance,” said Bobby McEnaney, an expert on public lands at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “At a time when oil companies already hold millions of acres of public lands under lease -- but not being developed -- there is simply no reason for BLM to rush ahead with this lease sale.”
“Handing over the magnificent Desolation Canyon and the surrounding wild lands is the bow atop the massive gift to the oil and gas industry we’ve seen for the last eight years,” said Suzanne Jones, regional director of The Wilderness Society’s Central Rockies office. “For the American public and our natural heritage, this Administration will act as Scrooge again -- leaving us with very little, while rushing to let the privileged few drill and mine every last piece of wild land.”
The tracts of public lands that will be opened to leasing are dominated by lands that BLM inventoried in Utah between 1996 and 1999 and again between 2001 and 2007 and determined to have wilderness character. They are largely all part of the lands proposed for Wilderness designation in America's Red Rock Wilderness Act (H.R.1919/S.1170), a bill that has been supported in the 110th Congress by 19 senators and 160 members of the House of Representatives.
“The Bush administration’s energy policy, which favors development regardless of the environmental cost, endangers our national treasures such as Dinosaur National Monument,” said Karen Hevel-Mingo, program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association’s Southwest Regional Office. “Increasingly surrounded by oil and gas development, Dinosaur’s resources, including air quality, soundscapes and visual resources, are in peril. The latest leases, especially those near Diamond Mountain would further exacerbate the problem.”