BLM backs off plan to issue drilling permits in Utah's redrock country

Shoddy » Conservation groups criticize agency's haste in issuing plans for 11 million acres
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Drilling leases on the road to Dinosaur National Monument and on lands visible from Utah's iconic Delicate Arch and near Canyonlands National Park are off the block.

In the face of intense opposition from the National Park Service, members of Congress and a top official from President-elect Barack Obama's transition team, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management backed down Tuesday from its plan to sell oil and gas leases near national parks and wilderness-quality areas in Utah on Dec. 19.

The BLM also promised to consult with the Park Service on any future changes to environmental protections built into long-range plans for lands near the parks, said Mike Snyder, director of NPS' Intermountain region.

"We're pretty pleased," Snyder said Tuesday afternoon. "We needed time to really analyze these to determine what potential park impacts might be."

In a joint announcement, BLM's Utah state director Selma Sierra said working with the Park Service on this dispute was constructive.

"Ongoing discussions with the National Park Service will continue to strengthen our collaboration and coordination," she said. "This is important for two sister agencies with environmental stewardship missions."

Yet where Snyder saw victory, conservationists saw unnecessary compromise.

"It's still a disaster in the making," said Steve Bloch, an attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "Parcels [that Park Service officials] said were important are still on [the sale list]. That seems a pretty clear indication the Park Service was rolled by someone higher up in the administration."

Snyder denied Bloch's claim. "We got no pressure from the administration. None," he said. "I got support to do what was best for the parks."

The Park Service objected to more than 90 leases covering more than 130,000 acres on the boundaries of Arches and Canyonlands national parks and Dinosaur National Monument. Those leases were among more than 360,000 acres of public lands in Utah the Bush administration announced on Election Day would be open to oil and gas drilling.

While 22 of the most sensitive parcels concerning the Park Service will be removed from the list, the others will still be for sale, albeit under notice that the two Interior Department agencies could alter lease conditions in the future.

In Dinosaur National Monument, the Park Service was most concerned about three lease parcels that are on the main approach to the park. But the BLM also took off the lease-sale list five other parcels north of the monument to make sure they conform with BLM's long-range plan, said agency spokeswoman Mary Wilson.

Bloch said those areas already were closed to leasing under the land-use plan, so should never have been considered.

Conservation groups criticized the BLM's haste in issuing final resource-management plans for 11 million acres of redrock desert in southern and eastern Utah during the past couple of weeks, saying the results were shoddy.

"In essence, the controversial resource management plans that were finalized in October and November extend the Bush administration's devastating environmental policies for another two decades," said Bill Hedden of the Grand Canyon Trust. "Unless the Obama administration intervenes in favor of more balanced land use in Utah, future lease sales will inevitably continue to be controversial and we will face unresolved off-road vehicle and drilling issues for years to come."

Tuesday evening, the BLM briefly posted on its Web site maps showing other parcel deferrals in Nine Mile and Desolation canyons, which are also bones of contention with conservationists. The agency quickly took them down again, saying they needed more analysis. Wilson said the agency would probably announce those deferrals next week.

Earlier Tuesday, a congressman who could be in the running to replace Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne joined eight U.S. senators in calling for Kempthorne to keep lands near national parks in Utah off the lease list.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., sent a letter to Kempthorne saying, "this ill-advised fire sale of leases, which could irreparably harm the air, water and wildlife of three beloved national parks, should be halted."

Grijalva, chairman of the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, has been mentioned as a possible candidate for Interior secretary in the Obama administration.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., also sent a letter Tuesday to Kempthorne to urge Interior to postpone the oil- and gas-lease sale the BLM has scheduled for the Friday before Christmas. Seven other senators signed the letter.