For Immediate Release: November 10, 2003

Contacts:
Stephen Bloch, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, 801-486-7639, ext. 16
Johanna Wald, Natural Resources Defense Council, 415-777-0220
David Slater, The Wilderness Society, 202-429-8441
Annie Strickler, Sierra Club, 202-675-2384
Jennifer Lamb, National Outdoor Leadership School, 307-335-2262
Kathryn Seck, Campaign for America’s Wilderness, 202-266-0436


Oil Lease Sale on Utah’s Wild Lands Challenged
Conservationists Say BLM Action Violates Federal Law

SALT LAKE CITY, NOVEMBER 10 Today, several conservation groups and a member of Congress formally challenged an upcoming oil and gas lease sale on wilderness-quality lands in Utah which were previously off-limits to development. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), The Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club and U.S. Representative Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) are protesting 21 parcels scheduled to be included in a lease sale on November 24, 2003 for 16,000 acres.

This lease sale marks the first victim of the Bush administration’s “no wilderness” policy, formally implemented nationwide at the end of September for Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands. That policy is the result of a backroom deal between the Bush administration and former Utah Governor (now EPA Administrator) Mike Leavitt last April that has opened millions of acres of public lands including these Utah lands to oil and gas development and will prevent tens of millions of acres of wilderness-quality lands from ever again being recommended to Congress for permanent protection.

Just last week, the BLM announced plans to open more of Utah’s wilderness-quality lands to development by identifying 24 additional parcels of land in Wilderness Inventory Areas (WIAs) for an oil and gas lease sale in February 2004. These lands in Eastern Utah encompass the Desolation Canyon/Book Cliffs region and areas near Dinosaur National Monument.

“There can be a balance between wilderness protection and oil and gas development,” said Rep. Hinchey, lead sponsor of America's Redrock Wilderness Act (H.R. 1796), which would designate as wilderness all of the land encompassed in the 21 parcels up for sale. “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. We deserve better. We should not be selling and destroying wild lands the federal government acknowledged are wilderness quality and that Congress wants to protect. If this lease sale goes forward, the Bush administration is blatantly ignoring me and 158 other members of Congress who have joined in co-sponsoring my legislation to preserve America's Redrock country.”

Specifically, the conservationists and Rep. Hinchey are challenging these leases for several reasons. First, BLM is leasing lands the agency itself determined were wilderness quality in 1998. Upon completion of that inventory, the BLM wrote about the magnificent and unique wilderness values of the land, stating:

 -“In combination with the [Desolation Canyon WSA], the [Desolation WIA] represents one of  the largest blocks of roadless BLM lands within the continental United States,” and

 -Within the southern Book Cliffs area, the “Flume Canyon inventory area  is one  of seven  contiguous inventory areas [including Coal Canyon and Floy Canyon WIAs] across much of  the Roan Cliffs and Book Cliffs, the longest continuous escarpment in the world.”

Conservationists also oppose the BLM’s “lease first, think later” approach to managing these spectacular areas. The only environmental review that exists for these lands predates the 1998 inventory and does not take into account the affect of oil and gas development. In fact, as the BLM’s own staff argues that the Desolation Canyon parcels should not be leased; that same logic should be applied to the other 18 parcels.

“The administration is seeking to destroy wilderness-quality lands under the radar, delivering nothing but turkey to the American people this holiday season. If this lease sale goes forward as planned, we will not have much to be thankful for, as the popular wild Utah lands enjoyed by millions will be open to destruction instead of preserved for future generations,” said Stephen Bloch, a staff attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

“The Bush administration’s head is in the sand, ignoring federal law and the American people who want to see these amazing lands remain wild,” said Johanna Wald, senior attorney and land program director at NRDC. “Turning over these unique lands of solitude to the administration’s oil and gas friends is tantamount to giving the Statue of Liberty to a scrap metal yard. John Wesley Powell, who wrote so powerfully about his historic expedition to the Desolation Canyon region in 1869, must be turning over in his grave.”

According to 2003 data from the U.S. Geological Survey, undiscovered resources in Utah would supply the country with less than three weeks of oil and less than eight months of natural gas. Indeed, roughly 95% of the oil and gas currently produced in Utah comes from less than 4% of its lands - none of which are proposed for wilderness.

“The sad thing is that everyone acknowledges that there is no chance of finding significant amounts of energy here,” said Kevin Walker, public lands chair of the Sierra Club’s Utah Chapter. “The Bush administration is sacrificing world class scenery in order to pursue third-rate oil and gas deposits.”

“By consistently catering to the interests of the oil and gas industry, the Bush administration is making a radical break from the balanced policies Congress has attempted to achieve for decades,” said Dave Alberswerth of The Wilderness Society.

“Some of the parcels offered for lease straddle areas that are critical to NOLS' ability to teach students minimum-impact travel techniques and environmental studies in an extended back country expedition setting,” said Jennifer Lamb, public policy director for the National Outdoor Leadership School which also challenged the lease sale. “We have been permitted to operate in these wild places -- our classrooms -- since 1989, and would have a tough time replacing such an amazing, relatively undisturbed course area.”

In addition to NOLS, the Center for Native Ecosystems and Outdoor Industry Association have also filed a protest with the BLM opposing the lease sale. Over the past year, Outdoor Industry Association has voiced its opposition to the administration’s deal endangering these wild lands.

BLM will review and, if necessary, respond to the lease sale challenges within 7-10 days.

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