This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
The BLM's latest package of parcels up for oil and gas leasing encompasses much of the southern Utah town of Bluff and surrounding areas precious to the Hopi Indian Tribe, opening the agency up to claims of cultural insensitivity.
After public outcry, federal land managers carved out the 20 acres under the historic St. Christopher's Episcopal Mission outside town. But drilling rights around the lot are available.
They also thought better of selling mineral rights under two Bluff subdivisions.
But the most sensitive parcels of all more than 6,000 acres of Alkali Ridge, a formation replete with ancient Puebloan ruins sacred to the Hopi are still up for sale.
Last week the Bureau of Land Management unveiled 58 federal parcels, covering nearly 62,000 acres in southeastern Utah it proposes to sell at a Feb. 17 auction.
The agency is taking public comment on the proposed sale of minerals administered by its Moab and Monticello field offices through Oct. 20.
Hopi leaders have warned public land managers the lease sale is jumping a step. Terry Morgart from the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office says cultural resources in many of the parcels have not yet been sufficiently inventoried.
The Hopi and historic preservationists want to see the ridge protected as a national monument. It's already a national historic landmark.
BLM managers, however, argue they've taken out the most sensitive parcels. And continued coordination with the tribe will guarantee cultural and religious values will not be harmed.
"That's based on nothing," Morgart said. "Now they're saying they are taking a look. Looking isn't surveying. It means absolutely nothing."
The tribe fears drilling could damage the archaeological sites around Alkali Ridge, an area 10 miles east of Blanding. The Hopi claim ancestral ties to the ancient people who built the Alkali Ridge ruins and inhabited surrounding lands 1,000 years ago.
BLM prepared an Environmental Assessment, which pared the auction list from 76 parcels to 58. The review concluded that 19,000 acres industry had "nominated" should not be leased for a variety of reasons, including concerns raised by tribes.
At the same time, land managers left in parcels in the 39,000-acre Alkalki Ridge Area of Critical Environmental Concern, or ACEC.
While acknowledging that "the issuance of a lease is considered to be an irretrievable commitment of resources," the BLM said deferrals on other parcels of concern to the tribes and continuing consultation with them will protect Alkali Ridge.
The Hopi also have concerns with 11 parcels included in BLM's Nov. 18 auction, covering minerals administered by the Vernal and Price field offices.
Some of other parcels BLM "deferred" overlapped habitat occupied by Gunnison sage grouse, a rare ground-nesting bird that may soon be listed as a threatened species. Another parcel was located within a wilderness study area.
BLM also pulled a 20-acre slice of a two-square-mile parcel where the Rev. Baxter Liebler started building the town's Episcopal mission in 1943 to serve the Navajo community. An estimated 500 Navajo babies were born in the mission's clinic. The first Navajo school also started in the building, according to the town of Bluff's website.
The red sandstone parish is still active.
"The area is sacred to many Christians," one resident wrote in comments to BLM. "The Mission compound is a place for retreat and renewal, indeed pilgrimage, for many. Exploration and drilling will profoundly disrupt the serenity of the environment."
Most of the acreage to be leased is in non-contiguous parcels scattered in eastern San Juan County and other parcels are blocked together in the Book Cliffs in Grand County.
The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance is objecting to at least 16 parcels, including lands in the Book Cliffs, around Bitter Creek, Monument Canyon and Tin Cup Mesa, according to SUWA attorney David Garbett.
Six of the parcels cover 6,320 acres on Alkali Ridge, where nearly 60 percent of the ACEC is already under lease, according to the draft environmental assessment. BLM proposes leasing another 16 percent. The leases carry drilling stipulations to safeguard cultural resources and additional site-specific environmental reviews would be conducted before any development occurs.
But Garbett wonders what is the point of designating an ACEC which is supposed to prioritize preservation of cultural resources if the agency blankets it with oil and gas leases?
Barb Pahl of the National Trust for Historic Preservation also is most worried about Alkali Ridge. She said leasing under Alkali is premature given the ongoing public land planning process led by Utah Congressman Rob Bishop.
"It's well-known for its amazing archaeological sites, but also the landscape. This is not the right time to add new activity," said Pahl, whose group proposed designating Alkali Ridge and neighboring Montezuma Canyon a national conservation area.
"Why would BLM go forward with a lease when Rep. Bishop and [Jason] Chaffetz are trying to sort out land uses in eastern Utah?"