October 31, 2008

Bush administration pushing hard to open Utah lands to energy development

By Patty Henetz
The Salt Lake Tribune

The Bush administration is in its final push to open millions of acres in Utah and the West to energy development and along the way, critics warn, possibly destroy prospects for wilderness designation for thousands of acres of redrock desert.

On Friday, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management will release five of six long-range management plans that will open 80 percent of 11 million acres in southern and eastern Utah to oil and gas drilling and designate 20,000 miles of motorized recreation routes.

The actions of the lame-duck administration outrage conservationists, especially since the BLM's plans would have the force of statute for at least 10 years and would be difficult to alter.

"These [plans] are a very obvious attempt of the Bush administration to cement its legacy in Utah," said Steve Bloch, an attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "[They] are a road map to ruin for Utah's magnificent public lands."

And on Election Day, when citizens most likely will be focused elsewhere, the BLM will announce an oil- and gas-lease sale involving large swaths of public land considered worthy of wilderness status - including artifact-rich Nine Mile Canyon, Desolation Canyon and areas around Dinosaur National Monument.

The actual sale will be held the Friday before Christmas - "the bow atop the massive gift to the oil and gas industry we've seen for the last eight years," said Suzanne Jones, regional director of The Wilderness Society's Central Rockies office.

But the BLM is acting on order from Congress, which in 2001 decided the plans, some of them 30 years old, needed recrafting to reflect new priorities, including increased demand from oil and gas developers and explosive growth in off-road recreation.

In May, a Bush administration study re-emphasized policies established in 2005 that would speed carbon-based energy development with minimal restraints unless federal public-land managers found it "absolutely necessary" to preserve other resources. The directive urged the BLM to find ways around "obstacles" to drilling, which the administration identified as well-established environmental-protection law, municipal development, private-property concerns, wildlife and national parks.

The Moab, Kanab, Vernal, Richfield and Price district plans are now final. Only the Monticello plan remains pending, waiting for state officials to sign off.

In a Thursday announcement, the BLM called the achievement "a collaborative effort in balanced stewardship for the future" that included protections for environmentally sensitive areas while supporting energy resources.

The agency said 53 percent of the more than 8 million acres open to oil and gas leasing would be subject to stricter environmental controls than before the plans were drawn, with about 18 percent of the 11 million acres unavailable to leasing under any circumstances. Less than a half of 1 percent of the public lands would be protected for their special beauty and solitude.

The resource plans came in slightly past their Sept. 30 fiscal-year deadline and cost $35 million, said Don Ogaard, lead planner for the BLM's Utah office. Though 87 protests numbering several hundred pages were filed during a 30-day period, all of them were dismissed or resolved to the BLM's satisfaction, he said.

During public-comment periods, the plans drew fire from all sides. Oil-industry representatives complained of too many restrictions on exploration, and county officials agreed. Conservationists objected to drilling in sensitive lands and laying out so many trails for motorized recreation because OHV users represent a small minority of those who visit the area. Off-roaders disliked the new directive to close Utah's BLM lands to cross-country travel in favor of a trail system. The Environmental Protection Agency criticized the Price, Moab and Vernal plans for inadequate air-quality reviews, lack of analysis of OHV impacts and a failure to evaluate energy extraction's effects on global climate disruption.

Highlights from each area's plan

Monticello: Anasazi ruins in Cedar Mesa, Dark Canyon and Butler Wash will take a back seat to hikers, cyclists and off-roaders when the BLM eliminates protection associated with areas of critical environmental concern in favor of special-recreation designation.

Richfield: Nearly all of more than 2 million acres of public lands in six counties surrounding Richfield will be open to oil and gas drilling and off-highway recreation. OHVs will be allowed into areas of Factory Butte previously closed for endangered-species protection and wilderness-quality lands.

Price: Energy development is the top priority for 2.5 million acres in Carbon and Emery counties and that's fine with county officials who believe their share of the revenues will make possible a more diverse economy in the future. Nearly 1 million acres previously found to have wilderness traits likely won't ever be so designated.

Vernal: A public outcry about wildlife, wilderness and cultural resources in the Vernal area led federal officials to close 186,917 acres to drilling, nearly three times the amount of land the agency wanted off-limits when it released its draft plan for the Book Cliffs and the Uinta Basin a year ago.

Moab: Hiking, biking, grazing, drilling, hunting and off-roading advocates squared off over the plan for 1.8 million acres of red-rock desert near Moab, leaving the BLM to sort out solutions that satisfy few and anger many.

Kanab: The plan for 550,000 acres of public land in Kane and Garfield counties includes 1,462 miles of OHV trails. About 27,000 acres will be managed for wilderness qualities, but the fine print says the BLM would allow OHV travel across those acres, likely making them ineligible for future wilderness designation.