Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance

Reflecting on the 77 leases ruling

5:51 am

On Wednesday the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a favorable ruling in Impact Energy v. Salazar.  We blogged a short “breaking news” blurb that day.  It is worth further reflection since it encapsulates some of the most important issues on the public lands front over the last few years.

Impact Energy v. Salazar was a lawsuit—brought by three oil and gas companies and three Utah counties—challenging Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s February 2009 decision to withdraw the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM’s) offer to lease the infamous 77 oil and gas lease parcels on public lands.

However, Secretary Salazar was not acting in a vacuum.  SUWA’s members and others raised an intense outcry regarding these leases in December of 2008.  This produced significant media coverage and scrutiny of the lease sale.  The following month, in January 2009, SUWA won a temporary restraining order in federal court preventing the BLM from issuing the 77 leases in the first place. Within in a few weeks, the newly appointed Sec. Salazar realized the mistake the agency had made and scrapped the leases.

Upset at this outcome, the companies and counties filed a lawsuit challenging the Secretary’s decision.  Earthjustice intervened in this litigation on behalf of SUWA and other environmental organizations.  The Utah District Court dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that the companies and counties had filed too late in the day.  They then appealed to the Tenth Circuit but Wednesday’s ruling confirmed the original outcome and dismissed their claims based on their late filing.

This is good news in the short run for the lands threatened by the 77 leases.  The long-run outcome for these lands, however, remains uncertain.

These 77 leases included some of Utah’s most spectacular public lands (see photos and maps).  The BLM proposed leasing parcels at the doorstep of Arches and Canyonlands national parks, at the head of Desolation Canyon, in the depths of the White River’s amazing canyon, in Labyrinth Canyon, and even immediately adjacent to Dinosaur National Monument.  This fire sale in the waning days of the last president was made possible by one of the Bush Administration’s most lasting and pernicious legacies: six resource management plans (RMPs) completed in the fall of 2008.

Do not be fooled by the boring sounding title, resource management plans are critical documents that guide the BLM’s day-to-day management of public lands.  They act like city zoning plans, determining where and when certain activities can take place.  SUWA constantly is fighting poor choices made by the BLM to allow oil and gas development on sensitive lands, off-road vehicle travel in inappropriate places, and so on.  These mistakes often have their genesis in the fact that a given RMP may make 90% of an entire field office available to oil and gas development or the fact that the six plans combined designate over 20,000 miles of dirt routes for vehicle travel.

It is these RMPs that the BLM relied on to determine that it would offer the 77 leases in the first place.  Although the 77 leases may be dead, those RMPs are not.  Hence, these same remarkable public lands remain available for the chopping block.  The whims of the current administration and random bureaucrats are all that prevent them from being placed in the crosshairs again shortly.

SUWA is seeking to change those RMPs and is currently engaged in litigation to do just that.  We hope that our efforts will ultimately pay off in a more thoughtful approach to public lands management that remove us from this gerbil wheel of ill-advised leasing decisions.

David Garbett

BREAKING NEWS: 77 Leases Lawsuit Dismissed

2:04 pm

Today the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals made the right decision to dismiss a lawsuit filed by oil and gas companies and three Utah counties attempting to force the issuance of the long-dead 77 leases. Those 77 leases were located in places like Arches and Canyonlands national park regions, Desolation Canyon, Labyrinth Canyon, and the White River. These are special, magnificent places that should be preserved in their natural state rather than being sacrificed for the short-term gain of a few. This is a welcome ruling. Read the decision in Impact Energy v. Salazar here:

David Garbett

Don’t trade away public lands to become the next North Dakota

6:32 am

The following opinion piece ran in the Deseret News on Wednesday, Sept. 5:

No offense to North Dakota, but Utah would be ill advised to trade away its spectacular public lands to become North Dakota II. According to a recent Deseret News editorial, “North Dakota’s natural gas production and aggressive energy policy have created a sustained boom.” (“Federal land use policy preventing Utah energy independence,” Aug. 29).

Unfortunately, the editorial appears to fall into a group that views public lands as a source of shame rather than pride — like a teenager embarrassed by his family. Apparently, if only we were North Dakota (if only my embarrassing family were like my neighbors’), then everything would be cool. Proponents of this view would trade our birthright for a mess of pottage.

Read more by clicking here.

David Garbett

BLM Refuses to Spare the ROD, Gives OK to Spoil Desolation Canyon

6:16 am

Yesterday was a bad news Monday.  The Obama Administration, in a disappointing move, approved the Gasco project in Utah’s Desolation Canyon wilderness.  By signing the Gasco Record of Decision (ROD), BLM has placed the interests of small-time speculators above that of the public and one of Utah’s largest primitive and roadless landscapes.

As we have blogged about before, the Gasco project is a large natural gas project in northeastern Utah, overlapping the Desolation Canyon wilderness complex.  This complex is one of the nation’s wilderness gems: a large and wild ecosystem replete with wildlife.  The Gasco project area alone covers habitat for deer, elk, pronghorn, sage grouse, and mountain lion.

The Obama Administration was faced with an easy choice here.  It could have approved a compromise version of the proposed Gasco project that would have steered development away from the sensitive wildlands of this region—lands that the most recent Bush Administration acknowledged were wilderness caliber—while still allowing the company to drill over 1,100 wells or it could eschew all compromise and give the company the authorization to drill nearly 1,300 wells.  Unfortunately, they went with the latter.  They did this over the objections of our members, congressional representatives, the outdoor industry, and many others.  Apparently, it was more important to them to give away public lands for speculative gas development in an unproven area during times of record low gas prices.

Contrary to the BLM and company’s clumsy wordsmithing and semantic gymnastics, the Gasco project is most definitely within the larger Desolation Canyon wilderness complex.  The BLM’s own environmental impact statement confirmed that the Gasco project overlapped with nearly 40,000 acres of the Desolation Canyon wilderness complex, an area that was “inventoried by the BLM and found to have wilderness characteristics” (Gasco Final EIS at 3-142).  Interior’s approval of the Gasco project undeniably places these lands at risk.

As these recent photos demonstrate, this is a wild and spectacular area.  Shame on the BLM for giving one company the green light to destroy it.

BLM’s approval of the Gasco project clears the way for development in the Desolation Canyon proposed wilderness (here in the mid-ground) and greater-Nine Mile Canyon region. Development could also proceed atop the Bad Land Cliffs (here in the background).

Gasco project area – wells would be located on high rims and central to left portion of this area.

Sand Wash and Desolation Canyon

Upper Desolation Canyon – Gasco could drill wells in the center flat landscape, coming to the river in the more relief area.

David Garbett

Last Week to Help Save Desolation Canyon!

4:20 pm
Desolation Canyon proposed wilderness
These badlands near Sand Wash in Desolation Canyon
will be littered with well pads and roads if the Gasco
Project is approved as is.  Photo courtesy of Bruce


This is the last week to tell the Obama Administration to protect Desolation Canyon before it releases its decision on the potentially disastrous Gasco project.

Remember, this is the project that places at risk one of the lower 48’s largest unprotected roadless areas.  The Bureau of Land Management’s current preferred alternative for this project would locate more than 200 wells inside of proposed wilderness surrounding Desolation Canyon.  This destruction is needless, as the agency could instead select “Alternative E” and eliminate all wells inside of proposed wilderness while still allowing Gasco to drill over 1,100 wells.

Fortunately, thanks to the efforts of SUWA members and supporters, people are starting to take notice of this misguided project and the harm it could cause.  Even the New York Times editorialized last week against this boondoggle.  The Salt Lake Tribune has not once, but twice declared that this is not the way to do things.

Your voice makes a difference.  Please take this opportunity to chime in and point the Obama administration in the right direction.

The BLM has announced that it plans to finalize its decision on the Gasco project after the close of a thirty-day waiting period, which ends on Monday, April 16.  Please let Interior Secretary Ken Salazar know before then that you expect him to make the right decision and protect Desolation Canyon by selecting Alternative E.

While you are at it, make sure to sign our petition and tell your friends to take action to protect Desolation Canyon.

Looking southeast from a bench off the Wrinkle Road — a Gasco well would be drilled in this approximate area under Alternative F.

Looking into Nine Mile Canyon (Nine Mile Creek) from the Sand Wash airstrip (no proposed wells visible, though drilling of proposed wells could be seen/heard from this location).

Sand Wash airstrip looking north to the Sand Wash put-in (no proposed wells visible, though drilling of proposed wells could be seen/heard from this location).

Looking north/northwest from the Sand Wash airstrip (Sand Wash road leading to the river put-in below).  Wells would be drilled atop the Bad Land cliffs (background) and on the western (left) edge of the Wrinkle Road in the photo.

Sand Wash airstrip looking west/northwest into the Gasco project area. Wells would be located on the top of the Bad Land Cliffs in the background and along the intermediate bench (Wrinkle Road).

Looking east from a bench off the Wrinkle Road — a proposed well would be drilled in this approximate location under Alternative F.

David Garbett