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Conservationists Urge a Balanced Approach to Protect Scenic Wonders
SALT LAKE CITY In a development with sweeping implications, the Bureau of Land Management released the very first of its draft revised Resource Management Plans for Utah last Friday, revealing that the Bush Administration’s vision for the magnificent San Rafael Swell and Book Cliffs of central Utah, as well as the ten million acres of additional public lands in Utah now under review, is oil and gas development at the expense of all other uses.
“Although the BLM is directed to manage America’s public lands for multiple uses, the Price plan is a “single-use” plan that sacrifices wildlife, wildlands and recreation for oil and gas drilling,” said Heidi McIntosh of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “The proposal for managing the Price area which includes spectacular landscapes once proposed for preservation as a National Park, plus over a million acres of proposed wilderness -- shows the true colors of an administration that views wild country as just another hurdle to development. Simply put, the BLM is giving away the store to the oil and gas industry.”
Except for the lands which Congress specifically directed BLM to protect as Wilderness Study Areas, the draft land use plan for the 2.5 million-acre Price Field Office opens essentially every other acre to oil and gas development. It is the first such draft plan to be released in the wake of the April 11, 2003 “No More Wilderness” deal between then-Governor Leavitt of Utah and Interior Secretary Gale Norton. In this far-reaching backroom settlement, Secretary Norton barred the BLM from identifying and protecting public lands eligible for wilderness preservation in Utah as well as across the country. Conservationists have challenged the deal in court, but hearings have not yet been held.
Suzanne Jones of The Wilderness Society has watched the land use planning process take shape throughout the Intermountain West. “The Bush Administration is systematically authorizing the destruction of some of the most spectacular places in the West, “according to Jones. “Last year the BLM issued a directive to its staff to make oil and gas development ‘the number one priority’ for America’s public lands, and now we are seeing the effects. In Utah, as in New Mexico and Wyoming, the Administration promised to protect wilderness values, and then took every opportunity to open these lands to roads, drill pads, and waste pits.”
Resource management plans dictate how public lands will be used for decades, spelling out such details as which lands will be open to oil and gas drilling, to off-road vehicle use, or for other non-consumptive uses like wildlife habitat and non-motorized recreation. The Price RMP is the first of five ongoing land use plan revisions, covering some 10 million acres, which the BLM is now undertaking in Utah, and one of 80 plans that the agency will be revising for public lands across the West over the next few years.
The Price plan will decide the fate of scenic landscapes such as Eagle Canyon, Muddy Creek, Sids Mountain, the spectacular geologic uplift known as the San Rafael Reef, and the remote and wildlife-rich Book Cliffs of eastern Utah. In addition to its single-minded focus on oil and gas development, initial analysis of the BLM’s draft plan for the Price area shows no meaningful protection for proposed wilderness and appears to abandon any attempt to rein in damaging off-road vehicles:
“The explosion of unmanaged ORV use is widely recognized as one of the biggest threats to the San Rafael. It’s astounding that the BLM would release a draft plan without a strategy to deal with this problem, “stated McIntosh. (Note: 1 million acres of the 2.5 million acres under review were already subject to trail designations under a 2003 travel plan, and another half million acres are Wilderness Study Areas where ORV use is not allowed.) Added McIntosh, “Now is the time to protect the San Rafael and Book Cliffs from the onslaught of ORVs before it’s too late. Already, 80% of BLM lands managed by the Price office are within one mile of a motorized route, while a mere 20% of the lands offer visitors a quiet refuge in the desert backcountry, more than one mile from a road. BLM's proposed plan would do little to correct this imbalance.”
In contrast, conservationists previously submitted detailed comments to BLM urging the protection of proposed wilderness areas from oil and gas development and ORV use, while allowing for these uses in other areas. “We will continue to push for balanced management plans that provide for a full range of values and uses, as the law requires and the public deserves,” added Jones.