Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance

Grand County’s Proposed Public Lands Plan: How Bad Is It?

5:07 pm

We expected bad, but this is far worse.

Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, Utah. Image credit: Josh Myers, winner of National Parks Photo Contest on Trails.

Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, Utah. Image credit: Josh Myers, winner of National Parks Photo Contest on Trails.

Background: On April 9, 2014, the Grand County Council Public Lands Working Committee identified 3 alternatives, along with maps, for long term designations of public lands in Grand County as part of Representative Rob Bishop’s proposed land use bill for eastern Utah.

Unfortunately, even the best alternative (Alternative #3) proposed by the Working Committee would roll back environmental protection in Grand County.

All the alternatives ignored the public input that the county received. Of the 182 letters received by the Council from Grand County residents and business owners, nearly 90% favored strong wilderness and public lands protection.

And yet, the County’s best alternative (Alternative #3):

  • Protects just over half (58%, or 484,446 acres) of the proposed wilderness in Grand County — and then riddles that “protected wilderness” with ORV routes. The Working Committee decided that places like Porcupine Rim, Mary Jane Canyon, Fisher Towers, Goldbar Rim, the Dome Plateau, and most of Labyrinth, including Mineral, Hell Roaring, Spring, and Tenmile canyons, were unworthy of wilderness protection.
  • Would punch a hole through the heart of the Book Cliffs — one of the largest remaining roadless areas in the lower 48 states — to build a “Hydrocarbon Highway” for fossil fuels extraction. The county proposes a mile-wide “transportation corridor” (proposed as 2 miles wide in the other alternatives) to ship fossil fuels from the Uinta Basin and proposed tar sands mining in the Book Cliffs to dreamed-of refineries in Green River, or to the railway.
  • Leaves open to oil and gas drilling the entire view shed east of Arches National Park, including the world-famous view from Delicate Arch. The Working Committee rejected proposed wilderness areas east of Arches. This is the same area that caused a national uproar and sent Tim DeChristopher to prison when the George W. Bush administration sold the famous 77 oil and gas leases in its waning days. Under the county’s best proposal, leasing and drilling in that region would be allowed.
  • Allows oil and gas drilling and potash mining on the rim of Labyrinth Canyon (upstream from Spring Canyon). The lack of real protection in the greater Labyrinth Canyon area in all three proposals is a glaring and curious omission.
  • Supports continued off road vehicle abuse and offers zero concessions on ORV routes designated in the Bush-era BLM travel plan — even though the planning of those routes likely failed to follow the law. The county would codify the BLM’s Bush-era route designations even though a federal judge recently set aside a nearly-identical travel plan in the Richfield BLM office for failure to comply with legal mandates to protect archaeology, riparian areas and other natural resources.  It is likely just a matter of time before the Court overturns the challenged Moab travel plan.
  • Fails to protect Moab’s watershed. There is no wilderness proposed for the La Sal Mountains on US Forest Service land.
  • Prohibits the use of the Antiquities Act in Grand County — the same act that was used by three different Presidents to protect what is now Arches National Park. Although protection of Arches was opposed by Utah politicians, today Arches National Park injects more than $116 million into the local economy each year and supports more than 1,700 jobs in Grand County.

Alternatives 1 & 2 are even worse.  Both would impose a 2-mile wide transportation corridor for the Hydrocarbon Highway through the heart of the Book Cliffs.  This is wide enough to build an entire city within the corridor.  Alternatives 1 & 2 provide even less protection for Grand County’s proposed wilderness and less protection from oil & gas and potash development.


Mathew Gross

Oil and Gas Industry Appeals BLM Decision Not to Lease in San Rafael Swell

2:47 pm


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.



Celebrating the 5th Anniversary of the 77 Lease Sale

3:28 pm

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.

Steve Bloch

More great news! Wild lands in San Rafael Swell won’t be leased!

10:47 am

More great news! Wild lands in San Rafael Swell won’t be leased!

San Rafael Swell Rally

A woman protests proposed oil and gas leases during a rally in front of the BLM’s state offices September 16, 2013.

Today, the Bureau of Land Management made the right decision and dropped its plans to lease 80,000 acres of wilderness-caliber lands in the San Rafael Swell for oil and gas development.

The decision comes after an outpouring of public opposition. More than 5,000 citizens flooded the BLM with comments decrying BLM’s proposed lease sale. Another 200 packed the plaza outside the agency’s office during a rally in September. The Salt Lake Tribune editorialized against the sale, and publications around the country, including the New York Times, covered the controversy.

Citizens argued that the Swell – a geologic wonderland of majestic mesas, jagged cliff faces, twisting spires and hoodoos in south central Utah – is too precious to drill. The region has been proposed for protection as a national park, national monument, national conservation area, and wilderness. The Swell is a popular destination for hikers, canyoneers, bikers, jeepers, rock act aficionados, and anyone seeking to saturate their eyes with beauty.

Conservationists also argued that the lease sale was unnecessary. More than 3 million acres of BLM lands are already under lease in Utah but have not been developed.

SUWA, joined by a host of other conservation groups, filed a protest to the lease sale.

BLM’s decision means that the San Rafael Swell will be spared – for now – the presence of drill rigs, sprawling pipelines, road scars, gas flares, air pollution and the thump, thump, thumping of pumpers.

BLM made the right decision, and every citizen who wrote, spoke, rallied, or raised a sign encouraging them to do so deserves our thanks!

Terri Martin

Conservation Group and Energy Company Reach Agreement on Planned Helium Development in Emery County, Utah

9:44 am

SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH—The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) and IACX Energy, Dallas, TX, announced today that they have reached an agreement regarding IACX’s planned helium development in Emery County, Utah. The agreement was reached in advance of any appeals or litigation and resolves concerns raised by SUWA regarding the impacts of development of the potential helium resource on the Lost Spring Wash proposed wilderness area.

“This agreement gives SUWA certainty about the impacts that helium development may have to the Lost Spring Wash proposed wilderness area,” said Stephen Bloch, Legal Director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “We appreciate that IACX was willing to sit down with us and negotiate an agreement that protects an important public landscape.”

“We are pleased to have reached an agreement with SUWA that allows IACX to proceed with this strategically important helium project. IACX appreciates that while the U.S. urgently needs more helium, developers must earn the social license to operate on federal lands. It made good business sense to listen to the many stakeholders who care about the management of these lands and find a middle ground that allows for the timely development of helium,” said Scott Sears, the company president. IACX uses proprietary processes to capture and purify helium at lower pressures and ambient temperatures. The company recently commenced operations on another helium project at Harley Dome, Utah.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is analyzing IACX’s proposal to drill a helium test well on a location previously disturbed by natural gas development. If successful, IACX hopes to drill two additional test wells in the vicinity. IACX’s activities are located in the Woodside Dome field and in an area that was classified as United States Helium Reserve #1 by President Calvin Coolidge in 1924.

Helium is an indispensable commodity for many high tech uses including MRI machines, semiconductor manufacturing, the NASA program and fiber optics.