Utah's canyon country is such a breath-taking landscape, and its place names bear that out. Desolation Canyon. The Book Cliffs. Gates of Lodore. Nine Mile Canyon. These places can't literally speak, but they have many stories to tell.
Desolation Canyon offers some of the best white-water rafting through wilderness quality landscapes. They are landscapes of soaring cliffs where the songs of canyon wrens and other birds echo up and down river, where the breezes sing to you as they ebb and flow through the goosenecks the Green River long ago cut through the sandstone.
Nine Mile Canyon features a pleine air art gallery hundreds if not thousands of years old, one that actually runs about 40 miles, not just nine. More than 1,000 pictographs and petroglyphs grace the canyon's walls, some cut by Fremont Indian artists, some by Ute shamans.
These and other slices of the public lands landscape deserve some form of protection for visitors today and tomorrow to enjoy. And yet, the outgoing Bush administration is determined to open them to drilling rigs with all their associated access roads, noise, air, and, potentially, water pollution.
How much is too much? When the oil and gas industry in Utah has nearly 3,500 drilling permits in hand, but which have not been acted upon, why is the Bush administration selling them more, particularly in sensitive areas around national parks and monuments?
Conservation groups such as the National Parks Conservation Association, The Wilderness Society, and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance warned that the BLM was poised to announce on Election Day that it was ready to sell hundreds of oil and gas drilling leases in the above-cited places as well on lands surrounding Dinosaur National Monument, Arches National Park, and Canyonlands National Park.
But when Election Day arrived, BLM officials merely announced they were opening 360,000 acres to oil and gas work without specifying exactly where those leases would fall. Here's what the Salt Lake Tribune had to say about that slight-of-hand:
(T)he U.S. Bureau of Land Management's supposed list failed to detail those 241 proposed oil and gas parcels - some of which are thought to be near national parks and monuments. Instead, the BLM included only a muddled statement issued at the end of the workday by the agency's Salt Lake City office, whose officials skedaddled without offering any explanations.
Meanwhile, the Government Accountability Office released a report (attached below) Tuesday questioning why the BLM continues to offer so many leases when so few ever are developed.
The GAO looked at six Western states - Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming - and found that of nearly 48,000 leases issued from 1987 through 1996, only 2,900 ever were drilled and only about 1,800 produced any oil or gas.
In Utah, the BLM issued 5,127 leases during the same time period, but developers drilled only 323 (6.3 percent) and produced oil or gas on 225 leases (4.4 percent). The leases all were for 10 years with the possibility of a two-year extension.
Understandably, not every lease will produce. That's why oil and gas exploration requires so many leases. But why sell hundreds more when so many haven't even been touched by a drill bit?
“Previous administrations proved that there can be a balance between wilderness protection and oil and gas development,” says former BLM Director Jim Baca. “Unfortunately, the Bush Administration has worked tirelessly to appease the oil and gas industry no matter the cost to our national heritage of wild and untamed places. Extraordinary places like Desolation Canyon deserve to be protected.”
At the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, conservation director Stephen Bloch points out that the BLM in the past has determined that many of the lands it's now ready to lease for exploration hold wilderness qualities. “Nonetheless, BLM is condemning these lands to a future of oil rigs and gas pipelines and almost certain disqualification from future wilderness designation,” he says.
According to SUWA, "the tracts of public lands that will be opened to leasing are dominated by lands that BLM inventoried in Utah between 1996-99 and again between 2001-2007 and determined to have wilderness character. They are largely all part of the lands proposed for Wilderness designation in America's Red Rock Wilderness Act (H.R.1919/S.1170), a bill that has been supported in the 110th Congress by 19 senators and 160 members of the House of Representatives."
At the NPCA's Southwest Regional Office in Salt Lake city, program manager Karen Hevel-Mingo says, "The Bush administration’s energy policy, which favors development regardless of the environmental cost, endangers our national treasures such as Dinosaur National Monument."
"Increasingly surrounded by oil and gas development, Dinosaur’s resources, including air quality, soundscapes and visual resources, are in peril," she says. "The latest leases, especially those near Diamond Mountain would further exacerbate the problem.”