Last year the BLM proposed to sell 57 oil and gas leases primarily located in Utah’s stunning San Rafael Swell. The leases would have green-lighted development on more than 80,000 acres of proposed wilderness, the vast majority of which the BLM itself acknowledges are wilderness-caliber landscapes. The leases would have also authorized surface activities in a culturally rich area and over the objections of The Hopi Tribe.
Hundreds of people wrote and emailed the BLM asking them to “think first and lease later.” More than 150 of you rallied at the BLM’s state headquarters in Salt Lake City and delivered this message personally. Thanks to your hard work that bad idea was tabled in the days leading up to the proposed sale and the leases were withdrawn from the sale.
But last week, an oil and gas trade group filed an appeal with the Interior Department seeking to overturn the BLM’s decision not to offer these leases. They were joined by a small oil and gas company that had hoped to buy some of these leases — so small, in fact, that they don’t operate a single well in Utah.
The gist of their appeal is that because the BLM initially made the (wrong) decision to offer these leases, it was required to do so no matter what kind of information the agency learned about the threats that development would pose to fragile cultural sites, threatened species, etc.
In other words, industry wants the good old days back of “lease first and think later.” Not a chance. SUWA and other conservation groups intend to intervene on behalf of the BLM and defend this important decision.
Today is a good day. Five years ago to this very date a federal district court judge in Washington, D.C. issued an order enjoining the Bush administration from issuing 77 oil and gas leases it sold in late December 2008 across several spectacular Utah red rock landscapes. Judge Ricardo Urbina’s decision, which was issued on Saturday, January 17, 2009 granted SUWA and its partners’ motion for a temporary restraining order and came literally at the 11th hour and only two days before the Bush administration left office.
The “it’s Christmas 2008, we’re going out of business and all our public lands must go” lease sale, as it’s variously been remembered, turned out to be a watershed moment in the Obama administration’s approach to oil and gas leasing on federal lands. Following Judge Urbina’s ruling and a decision by then Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to formally withdraw the 77 leases from sale, the Interior Department began a top to bottom review of BLM’s oil and gas leasing program. That review culminated in new policies and programs that are intended to make sure BLM “thinks first, and leases later.”
One of these policies is BLM’s so-called “master lease plans” or MLPs which are intended to identify lands that will remain available for oil and gas leasing (and with the right stipulations) and which lands have other values that would be compromised by energy development (things like cultural resources, wildlife habitat, recreation, and wilderness). Think smarter zoning decisions that strive to reduce the level of conflict between the many competing uses of the public lands.
In Utah the first of these plans is being put together in the Moab area, which was ground zero for the December 2008 oil and gas lease sale. In typical BLM fashion nothing good comes easy and it’s taking a while to get this plan off the ground. We’re hopeful that the plans will better identify the places where oil and gas (and potash) leasing and development should and should not take place.
And how did it come to pass that there even was a December 2008 oil and gas “fire sale”? Just as it was leaving office, the Bush administration saddled Utah with six new land use plans (called resource management plans or RMPs) which made these kinds of bad leasing decisions possible. SUWA and its partners challenged those plans in court (as part of the same lawsuit that blocked the 77 leases). As many of you know this past fall we won a major victory when a federal judge held that several aspects of BLM’s Richfield RMP violated federal environmental and cultural preservation laws. We’re figuring out what that decision will mean on the ground – called the remedy stage of the litigation – and then will move onto challenging another one of the Bush RMPs.
But coming full circle – take a moment and revel in the key ruling we received five years ago. We couldn’t have done it without your help and support.
Recapture Canyon Off-Road Vehicle Right-of-Way
The BLM’s Monticello field office is requesting comments on a proposal for a new network of off-road vehicle trails in Recapture Canyon. This proposed route network includes the illegal route that was constructed in Recapture Canyon in 2005.
BLM should maintain the closure in order to protect the resources
After the illegal trail was constructed in 2005, BLM conducted a cultural resource survey along the illegal trail and identified nearly 300 cultural sites in or near the trail. The BLM eventually issued an official Closure Order for this illegal route to protect the cultural resources that were at risk of being damaged by use of the unauthorized trail. Importantly, the BLM’s Closure Order states specifically that off-road vehicle use in the area is causing, or will cause considerable adverse effects to cultural resources.
Tell the BLM: Protect Recapture Canyon’s Archaeological Treasures.
Recapture Canyon’s stream provides year-round lush habitat for wildlife. This stream is almost certainly the reason that the Ancestral Puebloans began inhabiting Recapture Canyon nearly 2,000 years ago. Remarkable remnants from these agrarian communities, many eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, have been preserved through the centuries in this quiet canyon.
The Hopi Tribe has requested that the BLM continue its closure order due to the sensitive nature of the cultural resources in the canyon. The Salt Lake Tribune has editorialized against rewarding illegal trail construction by approving the right-of way, and emphasized the need to maintain the closure to protect the archaeological treasures.
Yet San Juan County continues to pressure the agency to grant a right-of-way to the county for the illegal off-road vehicle trail and several other new trails on the rim of the canyon.
The Right Thing
There is no shortage of off-road vehicle trails in San Juan County, where enthusiasts can enjoy over 4,000 miles of trails on public lands. The BLM has a duty to protect Recapture Canyon’s stream, wildlife habitat, and the ancient Ancestral Puebloan sites, rather than grant an off-road vehicle right-of way to the county that will put nationally significant resources at risk of damage and destruction. The agency should do the right thing, and deny the county’s right-of-way request.
Please take a moment to send a letter to BLM requesting that it deny the county’s right-of-way request for the proposed off-road vehicle trails in and near Recapture Canyon.
The area around Canyonlands National Park has been identified as a “Globally Important Bird Area” by the National Audubon Society.
As Mark Miller of the NPS says: “The Canyonlands area is known worldwide for its many recreational opportunities and expansive scenic views. This special recognition by the National Audubon Society now brings significant attention to the fact that this striking area also is tremendously important as habitat for a diversity of wildlife including Mexican spotted owls and a large number of other bird species.”
Another interesting fact? There’s only one other “Globally Important Bird Area” in Utah — in Zion National Park.
National Parks Traveler has more.
Last year at this time we were reeling under the weight of the State of Utah’s 25+ newly filed R.S. 2477 lawsuits which claimed title to more than 14,000 roads covering more than 36,000 miles. Few wild places were spared from this onslaught. Not national parks. Not the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. And certainly not Utah’s red rock wilderness.
What a difference a year makes.
While all of these places are still threatened by the State’s tsunami of litigation, SUWA and its partners– working closely with more than two dozen attorneys from six national and local law firms and our own in-house legal team– have clawed our way to have a seat at the table. Much work remains to be done but it’s worth pausing to consider what we’ve accomplished:
- SUWA has successfully intervened in the 18 cases that threaten Utah’s red rock wilderness. This is no small feat when you consider the sheer number of legal briefs, exhibits, etc. that had to be filed for each of these cases. It’s also notable given a string of close losses that we suffered from 2008-2011 which made it harder for us to intervene and participate as parties in these critical cases. Remarkably, the Obama Justice Department has opposed our status as an “intervenor of right” at every turn, arguing that only the United States should be able to fully defend against the State’s lawsuits.
- Just last week a federal judge granted us the right to participate in the State’s so-called “preservation depositions” where the State is trying to memorialize the testimony of aged and/or inform witnesses. These depositions are one of the State’s primary tools to proving its cases. Prior to this ruling, we had to rely on the US Justice Department to ask our questions for us, which they didn’t always want to do. This decision is a significant step towards defending Utah’s red rock wilderness.
- The Tenth Circuit court of appeals recently (and provisionally, pending review by a three-judge panel) granted our motion to intervene in the United States’ appeal of a March 2013 decision by a federal judge which granted 12 rights-of-way to Kane County and the State. These included the so-called “North Swag” route, a claimed highway (impassable in some places) within the Grand Staircase national monument and a wilderness study area. The United States, State of Utah, and Kane County all strongly oppose our motion to intervene.
What hasn’t changed over the past year is the State’s zeal to do what it takes to be able to punch roads into the heart of Utah’s red rock wilderness. That’s why it continues to pour millions of dollars into attorneys, analysts, GIS staff, etc. to push these cases. In short, these lawsuits remain one the biggest threats we face today.
Thanks to your support, we’re starting to turn the corner and will be bringing the fight to the State in 2014.