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Public Land Policy Alert: Utah

Public Land Policy Alert: Utah

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

By Dusty Horwitt and Sean Gray, EWG analysts

An analysis of government data shows that the Bush administration, through the sale of oil and gas leases, is quietly working to prevent wilderness designation for thousands of acres of irreplaceable land in Utah that had been considered potential wilderness less than one year ago.

An analysis and map of lease sales by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) available at www.ewg.org show that a sale last November combined with sales this Wednesday and again in June could open more than 46,000 acres of the wilderness quality land to oil and gas exploration, some at prices of $3.50 an acre. The three sales would be completed just over a year after a controversial settlement between Interior Secretary Gale Norton and then-Utah Governor Mike Leavitt stripped the land of potential wilderness protection.

Once the land is developed, it will become difficult for Congress to designate it as Wilderness, the strongest protection for public lands under federal law.

According to EWG's analysis, one 1,022-acre tract was leased in November to Baseline Minerals of Denver for just $83,449 — less than $82 an acre. One hundred percent of the tract is on land identified as wilderness quality. The BLM notes that the lessee must avoid interference with critical deer and elk winter habitat and may be required to modify operations to protect bald eagles, a federally-listed threatened species, as well as golden eagles, peregrine falcons and antelope. Overall in the November sale, oil and gas interests snapped up 95 percent of the wilderness lands at an average price of $27 per acre.

In the February sale, a 960-acre tract was leased to Retamco Operating Inc. of Billings, Montana for $28,424 — less than $30 an acre. Close to 95 percent of the tract is on land identified as wilderness quality. The BLM notes that the lessee must avoid operating within the 100-year floodplains of the White River and may be required to modify operations to protect golden eagles, Mexican spotted owls, deer, elk and other wildlife. Overall in the February sale, oil and gas interests snapped up 100 percent of the wilderness lands at an average price of less than $20 per acre.

Using BLM data, a computerized mapping program, and maps prepared by Earthjustice, Environmental Working Group analysts identified the precise location of the leasing activity, its area, as well as wildlife habitat and species that could be affected by oil and gas development.

The analysis found that 20 of the plots either sold or scheduled to be sold contain sensitive bird habitat including 6 plots that contain habitat for the federally-threatened Bald Eagle. Twenty-seven plots contain sensitive floodplain areas including five plots sold in November on which oil and gas exploration could contaminate the Colorado River system.

In 1999, a team of what the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) called its "most experienced wilderness professionals" issued a report identifying BLM land in Utah as having wilderness characteristics. Between 1999-2003, BLM deferred approving most proposed development that would have damaged these characteristics pending further actions that could have designated the land as officially protected Wilderness Study Areas.

The 1999 inventory and report was ordered in 1996 by then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt as an effort to help resolve a controversy over the proper amount of wilderness in Utah. Conservationists have charged that a previous agency inventory of BLM land had overlooked wilderness areas — a charge that was substantiated by the results of the 1999 inventory.

In 1996, the state of Utah alleged in a lawsuit that the federal government was exceeding its authority by conducting the inventory. But in 1998, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Utah essentially had no legal standing to challenge BLM's analysis.

The case was remanded to federal district court in Utah where it lay dormant for approximately five years. Then, in 2003, it sprang to life in the form of a settlement between Interior Secretary Norton and then-Utah Governor and current EPA Administrator Leavitt. In the deal, the Bush administration acquiesced to the state's demands and stripped the potential wilderness protection from the inventoried lands, including red-rock canyon land and rock formations in southeast Utah. As part of the settlement, the administration also stated that the BLM lacked the authority to protect additional land in other states as wilderness unless Congress formally designated the land as wilderness.

According to the 1964 Wilderness Act, land must be "untrammeled by man" to receive a designation as wilderness. Once it is designated as wilderness, "no commercial enterprise and no permanent road" is allowed inside the area.

Utah's wilderness quality lands inventoried in the 1999 report are distinct from 3.3 million acres of wilderness study areas (WSAs). BLM identified the vast majority of the WSAs in an inventory completed in 1980. These areas continue to be protected as potential wilderness.


References:

No More Wilderness? Campaign for America's Wilderness. Accessed online February 16, 2004 at http://www.leaveitwild.org/nowilderness/index.html.

Stephen Bloch, staff attorney, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. Personal Communication. February 17, 2004.

The Wilderness Act. 16 U.S.C.S. §§ 1131, 1133 (2003).

Utah Wilderness. Bureau of Land Management. Accessed online February 16, 2004 at http://www.ut.blm.gov/utahwilderness/imp/imp.htm.

Urgent Cases. Utah Wilderness Inventory. Earthjustice. Accessed online February 17, 2004 at http://www.earthjustice.org/urgent/display.html?ID=120.

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