Proposed Gas Drilling Threatens Wilderness Area

Wilderness quality lands in eastern Utah will be destroyed if the Bureau of Land Management state director fails to grant a Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance request to delay pending gas well exploration until further studies are completed in the area.

SUWA this week asked state BLM director Sally Wisely to overturn a decision by local BLM officials in Vernal that will allow a gas company to construct a road and begin drilling in the White River wilderness area, a 15,800 acre unit approximately 30 miles southeast of Vernal. The request asks the director to delay any drilling in the area until a thorough environmental impact statement (EIS) is completed by the Vernal field office and until the second phase of the BLM's wilderness reinventory process is complete.

The BLM announced last year that 2.6 million acres of wilderness quality lands were overlooked when Congress established 3.2 million acres of wilderness study areas in 1980. One of those areas is the White River unit. The BLM concluded that without exception the "entire unit has natural character" and that the area's scenic beauty, comprised of deep canyons and dominating ridges is "exceptional."

But the area may also contain gas reserves and certain companies have acquired lease rights to parts of the unit. However, the BLM state director has the discretion to suspend or delay gas exploration to protect on the ground resources.

"Much of the good work that went into the BLM's reinventory process could be ruined if this precedent is established," said SUWA's Moab field representative Herb McHarg. "These lands clearly have wilderness quality. It is unconscionable for the BLM to identify wilderness then allow its destruction."

BLM officials from Vernal earlier this month authorized the Texacoma gas company to blade an access road to the so-called Rockhouse well site, drill for gas and install a surface pipeline. In addition to the environmental destruction caused by drilling, the road would scar at least one mile of wilderness within the unit, destroying about 500 trees and causing increased erosion in the runoff zone to the White River, also proposed for wild and scenic river designation.

This area has become a flash point for anti-wilderness sentiment in Uintah County. Last summer Uintah County officials illegally bulldozed four miles into the White River unit, and together with People for the USA, held an anti-wilderness rally. During that rally Congressman Chris Cannon may have broken federal law when after addressing the rally drove into an area closed to vehicle traffic. Another gas company has plans to drill on a state-owned parcel within the White River unit and has asked the BLM to grant it access over wilderness quality lands.



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