Utah leases could be early issue for new Interior chief

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 17, 2008 

WASHINGTON — Environmental groups filed a lawsuit Wednesday to try to block the sale of oil and gas leases that the Bush administration plans for Friday on 110,000 acres of wide-open redrock country in Utah near Arches and Canyonlands national parks.

The suit says that the sale would result in oil wells, electricity lines and roads through wilderness that includes Desolation Canyon, one of the largest roadless areas in the Lower 48. The suit also argues that oil and gas development would make the air dirtier in the two national parks and Dinosaur National Monument, and also would harm Nine Mile Canyon, which contains archaeological sites and prehistoric rock art.

If the sale goes through as planned, a decision about whether the government should buy back the leases could hit the desk of President-elect Barack Obama's choice as secretary of the interior, Ken Salazar.

Salazar hasn't made his views public about the Utah lands. In the Senate, he's supported oil and gas development, but he's also supported various forms of environmental protection.

Mary Wilson, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Land Management office in Utah, said the BLM found that 2.8 million acres in Utah had "wilderness characteristics" and decided to preserve wilderness on about half a million of those acres.

Wilson said that the National Park Service raised concerns about leases on 93 parcels, and that the BLM took 23 of them off Friday's offering as a result. She said the BLM satisfied the Park Service with stipulations about use of the other 70 parcels. The Park Service referred calls for comment to the BLM.

Sharon Buccino, a senior attorney on land issues for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the lease sale was illegal and that the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management rushed it through without proper care for natural and cultural protection.

The BLM announced the lease sale on the day of the presidential election and started a 30-day period when it would receive comments. The announcement said the sale was part of "a vital part of supplying our nation with reliable and affordable energy."

Actor Robert Redford, speaking via phone at a news conference in Washington, said he'd hiked and ridden horseback throughout the Utah lands that are up for sale through most of his life.

"There's no place like these lands," Redford said. "They're part of the human, American legacy."

Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., who grew up in Colorado not far from that part of Utah, said he was confident that President-elect Barack Obama wouldn't let the lease sale go forward.

Baird added, however: "We should not have to buy these parcels back. They should not be sold now or any time in the future."

The League of Conservation Voters, which endorsed Salazar's 2004 election to the Senate, gives him an 81 percent lifetime score.

He advocated a phased leasing approach for oil and gas leases on Colorado's Roan Plateau, arguing that a slower approach would better protect the environment and wildlife. The BLM held the full auction.

Salazar also has said that he supports "developing oil shale responsibly." He called for extending a moratorium on commercial development in Colorado to allow time for research.

NRDC president Frances Beinecke and other environmental leaders praised Obama's selection of Salazar. Tom Kiernan, president of the National Parks Conservation Association, said that Salazar's record on protecting the parks was strong and that they'd be "in great hands."

However, Kieran Suckling, director of the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Ariz., said that Salazar was a disappointing choice with a mixed record on environmental issues. As examples, he said that Salazar twice voted against higher fuel efficiency standards for vehicles and, as Colorado attorney general, he supported Bush's choice of Gale Norton of Colorado as his first interior secretary. She went on to clash frequently with environmentalists over national parks policies and oil and gas drilling.

Salazar's family lived in Santa Fe, N.M., before the American Revolution and later settled in the San Luis Valley of Colorado, where they have farmed and ranched the same land for five generations.

When he was growing up, his home had no phone or electricity. Salazar and his seven brothers and sisters were the first generation in their family to graduate from college.

In addition to farming, he and his wife owned and operated a Dairy Queen restaurant and radio stations. Salazar practiced law, focusing on water rights and environmental issues, and served as Colorado's director of natural resources and state attorney general before he was elected to the Senate in 2004.

INTERIOR ISSUES

Sage grouse: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must decide by May under order of U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill whether to list sage grouse as an endangered species. If it does, it could restrict livestock grazing, energy development and activities across millions of acres of sagebrush steppe habitat in 11 Western states.

Global warming: The department must balance building wind, solar and geothermal energy plants on public lands with the protection of endangered species habitat.

Mining reform: Congress is preparing for a major effort to increase royalties for mining on public lands and to remove provisions that require agencies to issue permits to miners if they meet environmental standards.

Fire: Climate change has increased forest fires.

Water: Agriculture and salmon compete for water in the Pacific Northwest.

Indian issues: The interior secretary is the trustee for the nation's Indian tribes, who have fought in court for years to get royalties and other fees for oil, gas and mineral development on their land.

Wolves: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to remove wolves in the Northern Rockies from the endangered species list as early as this week, but the controversy is expected to return in the new administration.

- By Rocky Barker of The Idaho Statesman

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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