BLM land-lease sale plan draws protests

Arches area of concern: National Park Service requests deferment on 20 parcels
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Environmental groups and outfitters have filed protests involving nearly three dozen parcels that have been proposed by the Bureau of Land Management for its upcoming gas and oil lease sale.

The Utah BLM office plans to offer leases on 334,000 acres - the second-largest total in state history - in its regular quarterly sale on Aug. 15. Protests received by Monday's deadline total just over 41,000 acres, including parcels near Arches National Park, along the San Juan River, the Green River in Labyrinth Canyon and around the railroad grade in the Golden Spike National Historic Site.

But the focus of the protests this time center on the parcels around Arches. The National Park Service requested a deferment on 20 parcels near the park - including some within sight of the landmark Delicate Arch - because of viewshed, water quality, water quantity and nighttime illumination issues.

"Visual analysis of parcels generally closer than 5 miles to the park shows that all or portions of these parcels are visible from multiple vista points in the park," wrote Arches National Park Superintendent Laura Joss in a May 31 letter to the BLM. "Potential impacts include light pollution from flaring and lighting drill rigs or production facilities which dilutes the night skies, an important park value."

The BLM withdrew half the parcels in response, imposing a 4-mile viewshed boundary on the tracts it left available for leasing. Steve Bloch, a staff attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, says that falls far short of being satisfactory.

"Why wouldn't you listen to the Park Service?" Bloch said Tuesday. "There's no question now that the BLM's sole mission in Utah is to develop gas and oil leasing at all costs. And the costs are going to be the loss of integrity of places like Arches National Park."

SUWA was joined in the protests by Friends of Great Salt Lake, Center for Native Ecosystems, Red River Canoe Co. and the National Outdoor Leadership School.

BLM spokeswoman Adrienne Babbitt says the agency is confident that most of the Park Service's concerns can be met through stipulations the BLM will put on the parcels that have been left available for leasing - though she acknowledged that not all of the issues have been fully resolved.

"We go through these consultations all the time, and there's not always consensus," Babbitt said Tuesday. "But you eventually have to get to the middle ground, and we feel we did that here. We don't think the visitor experience at Arches National Park will be impaired."

About 80 percent of the parcels being offered for the August sale are in central Utah. The major clusters of tracts in Iron, Beaver, Millard and Juab counties are west of Interstate 15.

Another concentration of parcels is in Sevier County, not far from the site of last year's major strike by Wolverine Oil near Sigurd. Most of the tracts are in what the agency calls historically nonproducing areas.

The BLM will make a final decision on the protests by Aug. 8.