Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance * The Wilderness Society * Natural Resources Defense Council

For immediate release: June 24, 2004

Stephen Bloch, SUWA, (801) 486-3161;
Suzanne Jones, TWS, (303) 650-5818, ext. 102;
Sharon Buccino, NRDC, (202) 289-6868;
Kevin O’Connell, office of Rep. Hinchey, (202) 225-6335

BLM to Again Auction Off Wilderness Quality Lands in Utah

Salt Lake City, UT—The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is continuing its sell-off of wilderness-quality land in Utah with its latest quarterly lease sale scheduled for June 25. Although the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, The Wilderness Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) protested the sale of 25 of the parcels, the BLM announced on Monday that it has decided to offer the protested parcels for lease at the auction. The sale will include approximately 30,000 acres of wilderness-quality land.

"It’s clear that the Interior Department's decision to open up more acreage to oil and gas exploration, leasing, and development will allow industry to compromise wilderness-quality areas before Congress has had an opportunity to act upon our long-standing wilderness proposal," said Representative Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), the lead sponsor of America's Red Rock Wilderness

Act. "The Bush Administration is once again giving a gift to the oil and gas industry while doing irreparable damage to the environment."

Seventeen of the parcels are included in America’s Redrock Wilderness Act (H.R.1796/S.639), a bill that is supported in the 108th Congress by 15 senators and 161 members of the House of Representatives. The BLM itself determined that at least 12 of the parcels have a "reasonable probability of wilderness characteristics," including Mexico Point and Dirty Devil/French Springs proposed wilderness units (both located in the southeastern Book Cliffs) and the Flat Tops and Sweetwater Reef proposed wilderness units (both located near Utah’s San Rafael Swell).

"The BLM cannot credibly claim that it has ever analyzed the impacts of oil and gas development on these areas that the agency itself admits may be wilderness quality," said Stephen Bloch, staff attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "This ‘lease first, think later’ approach is shortchanging the American public and jeopardizing some of Utah’s most spectacular places."

The Utah lease sale is the fourth since the deal reached last spring by Interior Secretary Gale Norton and the State of Utah to remove BLM protections on the millions of acres of public lands in Utah that were deemed by BLM to have potential for wilderness designation. For several years prior to that controversial settlement, the BLM had a policy of not leasing lands that the agency agreed had wilderness potential.

"One would reasonably expect the BLM to give the benefit of the doubt to places that it agrees are of potential wilderness quality," said Suzanne Jones, regional director of the Wilderness Society’s Four Corners office. "Instead, the BLM is once again giving to the oil and gas industry irreplaceable lands that deserve to be protected for the public."

In addition to the areas with wilderness potential, many of the parcels are proposed for designation as "Areas of Critical Environmental Concern" (ACECs). Several, including the Dirty Devil Drainage, provide habitat for threatened, endangered, and sensitive plant and animal species; nine of the parcels may contain nesting habitat for the endangered Mexican spotted owl, and development of other parcels may damage habitat for ferruginous hawks and sensitive Colorado River fish species. Although BLM complied with some requests from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to withdraw several parcels and take steps to protect species, the agency ignored others.

"Up until now there has been a balance between wilderness protection and oil and gas development," said Sharon Buccino, senior attorney for NRDC. "Unfortunately, the Bush Administration is happy to hand over extraordinary places like Utah’s Redrock Wilderness to energy companies."



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