Feds affirm drilling near Utah ruins, Golden Spike
July 20, 2009
SALT LAKE CITY – A federal appeals board has cleared the way for oil and gas drilling around prehistoric ruins in southern Utah.
In the same ruling, the Interior Board of Land Appeals found that federal officials also took appropriate care in deciding to lease another parcel near northern Utah’s Golden Spike National Historic Site.
The Arlington, Va.-based board rejected an appeal filed by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance in a 15-page decision dated Wednesday. The wilderness group had challenged 15 of the lease parcels sold at a November 2006 lease auction of public lands in Salt Lake City.
The judges ruled the Bureau of Land Management imposed appropriate safeguards on drilling in the Monticello area near crumbling cliff houses, eroded pit houses and cave sites with prehistoric storage boxes made of stone slabs.
Those sites contain “a high density of irreplaceable cultural artifacts and historic properties” that could be damaged, said Steve Bloch, a staff lawyer for SUWA. “We don’t think that BLM did its homework before selling these leases.”
Normally, SUWA picks its battles carefully, yet a lawyer for oil and gas producers noted that none of the 15 contested parcels treads on lands proposed for protection under America’s Redrock Wilderness Act, a bill lingering in Congress.
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The lawyer, William Sparks of Denver, contends SUWA went overboard filing lease protests during the Bush administration even when it didn’t align with the group’s mission, and is losing battles as a result of taking a shotgun approach.
SUWA challenged at least some parcels at every Utah oil and gas sale from 2001 to 2008.
“As a general matter, SUWA generally opposes oil and gas on federal lands,” Sparks said.
Bloch acknowledged his group had become more active protesting leases, but that those protests amounted to less than 3 percent of all parcels offered at Utah auctions during the same time period.
“This lease sale occurred when the Bush administration’s drive to sell oil and gas leases on spectacular public lands in Utah was at full throttle,” Bloch said. “We think that the Appeals Board got this one wrong; BLM did not do its homework before selling these leases in some of the nation’s richest, most culturally sensitive lands.”