Protecting Utah’s wilderness

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By The Staff

“This is the most beautiful place on earth ... the canyonlands.  The slickrock desert.  The red dust and the burnt cliffs and the lonely sky.

“Under the spreading sunrise are more mesas, more canyons, league on league of red cliff and arid tablelands, extending through purple haze over the bulging curve of the planet to the ranges of Colorado-a sea of desert.  

“There is still too much to see and marvel at, the world very much alive in the bright light and wind, exultant with the fever of spring, the delight of morning ... the strangeness and wonder of existence are emphasized here, in the desert ... the extreme clarity of the desert light is equaled by the extreme individuation of desert life-forms.”  

This is how Edward Abbey described the red rock wilderness areas of southern Utah in his book “Desert Solitaire.”  

But, the Bush administration sees these areas differently – as good places to “drill, baby, drill.” In 2003 the federal Bureau of Land Management proposed opening up pristine wilderness in these areas to energy exploration.  

Environmental advocates fought the leasing proposal and in 2006 a federal court ruled the plan violated the National Environmental Policy Act. The Interior Department’s own Board of Land Appeals also issued an administrative ruling backing the leasing.  

“Previous administrations proved that there can be a balance between wilderness protection and oil and gas development,” said former BLM director Jim Baca, quoted in the Washington Post. “Unfortunately, the Bush administration has worked tirelessly to appease the oil and gas industry no matter the cost to our national heritage of wild and untamed places.”

Utah has more acres leased for oil and gas development than are currently being drilled, yet in its final weeks, the Bush administration has been trying to push through leases in environmentally sensitive areas, planning to auction off 276,025 acres on Dec. 19. The BLM’s energy team leader for Utah, Terry Catlin, says the list of lease sites is based on “industry nominations.”

If the sales are finalized before Jan. 20, it could be very difficult for the new administration to reverse them.  

On Dec. 4, as reported by The New Mexican, the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) filed formal protests, outlining their objections to drilling in 92 parcels of wild lands in eastern Utah totaling 100,000 acres around Desolation and Labyrinth Canyons along the Green River, and near Canyonlands National Park.  

Under intense pressure from the National Park Service, the BLM has pulled drilling leases on nearly 100,000 acres on and near the borders of Arches National Park, Dinosaur National Monument, Canyonlands National Park and Nine Mile Canyon (home to thousands of ancient rock art panels).

Other agencies raising concerns about the auction include Utah’s Division of State Parks and Recreation, which fears drilling could pollute groundwater, Yuba Reservoir and the Sevier River in central Utah and the fisherman’s Trout Unlimited, which fears drilling near the remote Deep Creek Mountains in western Utah would threaten recovery programs for native Bonneville cutthroat trout.

“We always look very seriously at protests that come in.”  

As this article goes to press, the BLM was planning to announce on Friday what additional parcels, if any, it may drop from the Dec. 19 auction.  It seems for now, efforts by conservation and outdoor groups, combined with falling oil prices that make plans to “drill here, drill now” seem less inviting to industry, will save at least some of Utah’s wilderness areas.  

But it’s likely to be an ongoing battle. “We’re not saying the lands are unavailable for leasing, because we’ve got some brand new land use plans saying they are.” Caitlin said.

Scott Groene, executive director of SUWA, believes the Obama administration and the new Congress may provide “perhaps the best opportunity for wilderness protection in the past quarter century.”

In order to protect southern Utah’s beautiful and unique wilderness, SUWA encourages the new Secretary of the Interior and staff at the BLM to review last-minute Bush administration decisions for legal violations; to reform the BLM and to re-instate the process that gives Wilderness Study Area protection to lands identified as having wilderness character.  

To find out more, and to get involved, come to a presentation on “Wild Utah: America’s Redrock Wilderness,” at 7 p.m. Feb. 4 in the upstairs meeting rooms of the Mesa Public Library. This event is presented by Bob Brister, Interregional Outreach Coordinator for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, and hosted by the Pajarito Group of the Sierra Club.

Meanwhile, check out www.suwa.org, www.sierraclub.org, and http://riogrande.sierraclub.org/pajarito/mainpaj.asp. Or, drive on up and see for yourself.

This is our own backyard.