- October 30 - In an unprecedented move, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has announced that it plans to sell oil and gas leases for approximately 16,000 acres in Utah that the BLM itself declared to be of wilderness character. Among the areas that BLM intends to turn over for development are sections of Desolation Canyon, Flume Canyon, Floy Canyon, and Coal Canyon, areas that had been protected by the BLM until the deal reached last spring by Interior Secretary Gale Norton and the State of Utah to remove BLM protections on the 2.6 million acres in Utah that were deemed to have potential for wilderness designation.
The parcels that will be opened to leasing are lands that BLM re-inventoried in Utah between 1996-99 and found to have wilderness character. They are all part of the lands proposed for Wilderness designation in America's Redrock Wilderness Act (H.R.1796/S.639), a bill that has been supported in the 108th Congress by 15 senators and 158 members of the House of Representatives.
"The Redrock Wilderness is a place that should be considered a national treasure like the Grand Canyon or the Statue of Liberty," said Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), who sponsored the bill. "The Clinton Administration recognized that lands such as Desolation Canyon were of national significance and that the future of these lands should be left in the hands of Congress to decide. Secretary Norton, on the other hand, has decided to make an irrevocable gift to the oil and gas industry of lands that should be set aside for future generations to enjoy in their pristine, undeveloped state."
The November 24 sale threatens portions of Desolation Canyon, where the Green River meanders through hundreds of thousands of acres of unprotected wilderness in the northern Book Cliffs, as well as the Book Cliffs' stunning southern flank. Desolation Canyon was named and apparently first described by John Wesley Powell during his historic expedition down the Green and Colorado Rivers to the Grand Canyon. Upon entering the canyon, Powell described the area in his diary as the "wildest" and a "wilderness." In its 1999 re-inventory of the area, the BLM wrote of Desolation Canyon, "This is a place where a visitor can experience true solitudewhere the forces of nature continue to shape the colorful, rugged landscape." The BLM also cited the area's "
cultural, scenic, geologic, botanical, and wildlife values."
"Previous administrations proved that there can be a balance between wilderness protection and oil and gas development," said former BLM Director Jim Baca. "Unfortunately, the Bush Administration is instead striving to appease the oil and gas industry no matter the cost to our national heritage of wild and untamed places. The American people, and extraordinary places like Desolation Canyon, deserve better."
"What makes this action by the Interior Department so extraordinary is that based on its own analysis, BLM determined these areas to be wilderness-quality lands," said Stephen Bloch, a staff attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "Nonetheless, BLM is ignoring its information and condemning these lands to a future of oil rigs and gas pipelines and almost certain disqualification from future wilderness designation."
The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), The Wilderness Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Sierra Club will challenge the Administration's leasing decision (the challenge to the BLM leasing decision is due November 10, 2003). If not stopped, on November 24 these public lands will be offered on a competitive basis to the highest bidder. SUWA and others currently have several pending appeals before the Interior Board of Land Appeals challenging Utah BLM's oil and gas leasing environmental review process, and similar appeals are pending in other states. SUWA, The Wilderness Society, and eight other groups also have a challenge pending in the 10th Circuit to the illegal agreement that paved the way for the lease sale.
"Handing over the magnificent Desolation Canyon and Book Cliffs to oil and gas interests is just the first horse out of the gate with the Bush administration's no wilderness policy," said Mike Matz, executive director of the Campaign for America's Wilderness. "The Bush administration is racing to the finish line to drill and mine every last piece of wild land without providing enough time for Congress to act and permanently protect wilderness for future generations. Ultimately, the American people will be the losers of this race, as once developed for short-term profits, America's natural heritage will never be eligible for wilderness designation."
According to Dave Alberswerth of The Wilderness Society, "The Utah wilderness lands put on the block are just the beginning. We also expect leases that will lead to the destruction of wilderness character in Colorado's Vermillion Basin and Roan Plateau, and Wyoming's Red Desert."
"As the Bush Administration continues to give away Americans' birthright to commercial interests, we will see more wild landscapes dotted with oil and gas rigs," said Carl Pope, Sierra Club Executive Director. "There is a better way. We can balance the multiple uses of public lands while protecting America's wild heritage."