Bureau Proposes Opening Up Utah Wilderness to Drilling

The Bureau of Land Management has proposed selling oil and gas leases in wilderness areas of Utah, including this rock outcropping, Hatch Point, out side Canyonlands National Park in the southeastern part of the state.
The Bureau of Land Management has proposed selling oil and gas leases in wilderness areas of Utah, including this rock outcropping, Hatch Point, out side Canyonlands National Park in the southeastern part of the state. (By Kevin Walker -- Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance Via Associated Press)
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 31, 2008

The federal Bureau of Land Management is reviving plans to sell oil and gas leases in pristine wilderness areas in eastern Utah that have long been protected from development, according to a notice posted this week on the agency's Web site.

The proposed sale, which includes famous areas in the Nine Mile Canyon region, would take place Dec. 19, a month before President Bush leaves office. The targeted areas include parts of Desolation Canyon, White River, Diamond Mountain and Bourdette Draw.

The bureau has sought to open these public lands to energy exploration since 2003, though it had earlier classified them as having "wilderness character." But the agency has been repeatedly blocked by federal court and administrative rulings.

"Previous administrations proved that there can be a balance between wilderness protection and oil and gas development," said former bureau director Jim Baca, who served under former President Clinton, in a statement. "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."

Terry Catlin, the bureau's energy team leader for Utah, said it has not finalized the list of lease sites but bases them on "industry nominations" and provides a 30-day comment period before the sale.

"At the end of the 30-day protest period, we look at the protests and make our final decision at this point," Catlin said in a telephone interview yesterday. "There isn't anything unusual about this timing. We do a lease sale every three months."

The agency will publish the list of lease sites Tuesday. In a notice being published today in the Federal Register, the bureau says it is finalizing five resource management plans applying to about 9.5 million acres, a required step for parts of the sale to go forward.

One of the areas set to be auctioned off is Upper Desolation Canyon, which was named by explorer John Wesley Powell in 1869 while he traveled down the Green River, which traverses the canyon, to the Grand Canyon.

In a 1999 assessment, bureau officials wrote that Desolation Canyon "is a place where a visitor can experience true solitude -- where the forces of nature continue to shape the colorful, rugged landscape," and heralded 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, an advocacy group, in a statement. "Nonetheless, BLM is condemning these lands to a future of oil rigs and gas pipelines and almost certain disqualification from future wilderness designation."

The bureau first proposed opening up energy exploration in part of the area in the fall of 2003, after former interior secretary Gayle Norton reached an agreement with then-Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt not to declare any new wilderness areas in the state. Environmental advocates fought the leasing proposal in federal court, which ruled in 2006 that the plan violated the National Environmental Policy Act. Interior's own Board of Land Appeals also issued an administrative ruling backing the leasing prohibition.

In recent weeks, GOP presidential nominee John McCain (Ariz.) and running mate Sarah Palin (Alaska), along with other politicians, have repeatedly called for greater domestic energy exploration -- leading chants of "Drill, baby, drill" on a daily basis. In a speech on energy policy Wednesday, Palin said the United States needs to pursue oil and gas at home rather than relying on imports.

"In a McCain administration, we will authorize and support new exploration and production of America's own oil and gas reserves, because we cannot outsource the solution to America's energy problem," Palin told an audience in Toledo.

But environmentalists questioned why the administration is pushing for the lease of ecologically sensitive areas when Utah has more acres leased for oil and gas development than are being drilled. At the end of fiscal year 2006, there were about 4.6 million acres of BLM-managed lands in Utah under lease, with just over 1 million acres in production.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company