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Washington » Environmental groups rallied around actor/director Robert Redford and fired off a federal lawsuit in a frenzied last-ditch effort to block the Bush administration from auctioning oil and gas leases near national parks in Utah's famed red-rock country.
The suit challenges 80 leases -- fast-tracked by the outgoing Bush administration and up for sale Friday -- that would allow drilling on nearly 110,000 acres near Arches and Canyonlands national parks and Dinosaur National Monument, among other areas.
"These are places that should be preserved forever, for all generations," said Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., who grew up in Colorado within an hour from Arches. He called the rushed lease sale "a final insult from an administration that has done so much to destroy this country."
Baird participated in a news conference in Washington, D.C. to announce the lawsuit. As did Redford, a trustee of the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), who participated via satellite from Los Angeles.
Redford called the Bush administration "morally criminal" for announcing the sale of these controversial energy leases on Election Day and skipping the standard comment period.
"No place on earth can speak to the balance of beauty and nature like these areas," Redford said.
The Bureau of Land Management originally wanted to auction leases on 360,000 acres, but that drew the ire of the National Park Service, its sister agency within the Interior Department.
After a series of negotiations, the BLM released a final list that dropped the total down to 164,000 acres.
Industry representatives weren't happy and conservationists weren't satisfied.
The lawsuit filed Wednesday seeks to halt the sale of most of those leases, claiming the BLM "failed to complete the analysis required by federal law for the protection of natural and cultural resources."
The groups, which include the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), will seek to block or at least delay Friday's auction. But if they can't stop the sale, they want to make oil and gas companies think twice before bidding.
"Anyone buying these leases at Friday's sale are doing so at their peril," warned NRDC attorney Sharon Buccino.
BLM spokeswoman Mary Wilson had no comment on the pending litigation. Industry groups continue to support the BLM's planned auction.
"This lease sale is a step in the right direction to meeting our energy challenges," said Kathleen Sgamma, government-affairs director for the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States.
She said ramping up natural-gas mining will help Obama reach his energy goals and that environmental groups that oppose the auction are refusing "to acknowledge a balanced, multiple-use approach to public lands management."
"It is just all or nothing with these groups," she said. "If they don't get 100 percent of what they want, they file suit or complain."
But Baird said the new leases will cause big environmental harm for little energy output.
"This is not urgent for the current energy supply. This is not urgent for the future energy supply," he said.
If the lawsuit fails and the auction goes forward, the environmental activists will turn to President-elect Barack Obama and his newly named Interior Secretary-designee Ken Salazar for help.
The new administration could buy the leases back from the companies.
No member of Utah's delegation participated in the news conference and none of them have publicly challenged Friday's lease sale.
Most of the controversial leases are in Utah Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson's district.
Matheson previously expressed concerns about whether the BLM followed the appropriate process when first announcing the lease sale. His spokeswoman said Wednesday that he had yet to review the lawsuit.
Beyond NRDC and SUWA, the parties involved in the lawsuit include The Wilderness Society, National Parks Conservation Association, Grand Canyon Trust, the Sierra Club and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.