BLM will sell oil and gas leases in scenic parts of Utah
WASHINGTON - The Bush administration will allow oil and gas drilling on Utah lands once reviewed for possible wilderness protection, and environmentalists said Thursday that other areas may follow.
In a lease sale next month, the Bureau of Land Management will auction rights to drill for oil and gas on more than 17,000 acres, mostly in the Book Cliffs region of eastern Utah, that a 1999 review under the Clinton administration had determined could warrant wilderness designation.
The lease auction was made possible by an agreement struck in April between Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt to resolve a lawsuit the state had filed against the department.
The settlement, reached in private meetings, rescinded some protection for 2.6 million acres in Utah and potentially millions of additional acres across the West.
"We are now beginning to see the fallout from the closed-door deals that the Bush administration negotiated this spring," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn. "If it spent as much time and energy developing renewable energy resources as it has spent in devising ways to destroy pristine environments - just so its supporters could pump a few weeks' supply of oil and gas - the country would be much better off."
A wilderness designation prohibits motorized recreation - including bicycles - and permanent development of the land, including the building of roads, power lines and pipelines. It is meant to preserve pristine lands "untrammeled by man," according to the 1964 Wilderness Act.
BLM spokeswoman Celia Boddington said the characterization by the environmentalists was incorrect.
"These lands did not have protection beforehand, so in a sense it's not a change," she said. "There is no 'opening up.' These lands were governed by land-use plans before this date."
While the lands had not been formally designated as wilderness, after they were found to have wilderness potential, President Clinton's Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt directed BLM not to open the area for development until it could be determined whether they should be protected.
"If you open up these lands for the kind of extractive activity ... then you destroy the most essential quality of these lands and that is their wilderness quality," said Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y. "These kinds of decisions should be debated by the Congress of the United States. They should not be made unilaterally as this administration has done."
Hinchey has sponsored a bill with 158 cosponsors to designate more than 9 million acres in Utah as wilderness.
"There are many lands in the West that deserve to be set aside as wilderness," said Jim Sims, executive director of the Partnership For The West, a pro-business coalition based in Denver. "But the process is set up so that Congress has the power to designate wilderness. ... The previous administration sought to short-circuit that process and that's not correct."
The areas that are being put up for lease are located in the Book Cliffs, a rugged landscape of plateaus and steep canyons carved by the Green River in eastern Utah.
The lease sale is scheduled for Nov. 24. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and other environmental groups plan to protest the sale and could appeal to the Interior Department or sue the government to try to stop the leasing.
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