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Thousands of acres of public land in southern Utah will remain open to oil and gas exploration and motorized vehicles after groups involved in a lawsuit challenging President George W. Bush-era management agreed Friday to settle a federal case.
The proposed settlement would end eight years of court battles over federal management of land around Arches and Canyonlands national parks, and Glen Canyon and Dinosaur national monuments, which the Bureau of Land Management oversees.
The environmental groups that filed the lawsuit in 2008, led by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), agreed to drop their challenge to the sale of dozens of oil and gas leases on thousands of acres in the region and regulations over where recreational vehicles can travel.
Groups involved said the state and affected counties, including San Juan and Kane, will oppose the tentative settlement, but environmental and off-road-vehicle groups hailed the proposed settlement as a victory and held out hope that U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball would approve it.
"One of the advantages of this agreement, from our perspective, is that it leaves in place all the existing plans," Paul Turcke, an attorney who represented off-road groups in the suit, said Friday night. "It doesn't close anything that's open for riding right now."
The proposed settlement would set up 13 subunits that include pristine land managed by five BLM regional offices in Vernal, Price, Richfield, Kanab and Moab. The settlement also includes the Monticello office, but SUWA legal director Steve Bloch said that office was left out of the agreement after President Barack Obama created Bears Ears National Monument in December, a designation that offers its own protections.
When considering new oil and gas leases and off-road vehicle trails within those subunits, the BLM would consider impacts off-road vehicles have on wilderness integrity and culturally important sites. It would set a schedule and requirements for public involvement over the coming eight years.
"With regard to off-road vehicle trails, there's no immediate impact," Bloch said. "But if ... the BLM decides that there are trails that are currently designated, but that there are unacceptable impacts to any of those resources, then it has the authority and in our view it would have the obligation to close those trails."
The BLM must consult American Indian tribes, the state and cultural history experts to approve new routes.
"For those areas, they'll actually go out and walk and survey the whole trail before designating those routes," said Robin Cooley, an attorney for the environmental group Earthjustice, who was involved in the lawsuit.
The proposed settlement also requires the BLM to update its system for monitoring air quality when considering new oil and gas leases, Cooley said, a component that comes after widespread development that has led to poor air quality that doesn't meet federal standards in the region.
"BLM is going to go back and update their policy that governs oil and gas leasing all over Utah," Cooley said.
The environmental groups had challenged the 2014 sale of dozens of oil and gas leases on 70,000 acres in the region.
The settlement will move forward if the federal district court agrees and vacates its prior rulings, and if the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals agrees. Anyone opposing the settlement can make a case at either or both levels.