Groups Claim Win over Bureau of Land Management in Utah Oil, Gas Dispute

A pair of environmental groups has notched what they call a significant victory over the Bureau of Land Management in an ongoing battle over the sale of oil and gas leases in Utah.

A pair of environmental groups has notched what they call a significant victory over the Bureau of Land Management in an ongoing battle over the sale of oil and gas leases in Utah.

The Department of Interior's Board of Land Appeals late Wednesday ruled in favor of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and the Natural Resources Defense Council, overturning the BLM's March 2002 decision to lease about 26,000 acres of public land in the Utah backcountry for oil and gas exploration.

"This ruling is the first one that says the BLM has been going about this in the wrong way, and that's very important," SUWA attorney Steve Bloch said Thursday. "This has the potential to reach outside of Utah, to reach across the West in terms of defining the terms the BLM has in selling these leases."

The appeal is one of five SUWA and the NRDC have filed with the Interior Board since May 2001. The groups also have filed direct protests with the BLM over lease sales that occurred in November 2003 and February, June and September of this year.

The two groups have lodged their complaints over what they describe as the BLM's failure to identify and inventory "cultural resources" such as archaeological sites and ancient cliff dwellings before selling the leases. They also accused the agency of failing to consult with American Indian tribes and other members of the public prior to the lease sales. Both are requirements under the National Historic Preservation Act.


"The plain language of the [National Historic Preservation Act] requires consultation once an agency embarks on an undertaking. The sale of oil and gas leases is an undertaking," the Interior Board ruled in its 32-page opinion.

Attempts to reach BLM officials Thursday were unsuccessful. Agency staffers were off for the Veterans Day holiday.

But in an internal e-mail dated Aug. 27, 2001, Garth Portillo, the BLM's state archeologist, acknowledged that SUWA and the NDRC "have identified what I see as the weakest point in our cultural resource compliance efforts for oil and gas leasing -- our deferral of tribal contracts until post-lease activities are proposed.

"The problem is that, while rare, any sacred, religious or traditional use areas that may exist on the lease could be affected by oil and gas activity, and avoidance and mitigation may be impossible," continued the e-mail, which was included in the ruling.

The board's Wednesday decision took in 17 different tracts of land, including parcels in the Black Ridge/Tank Mesa area west of Blanding, Kane Springs Creek south of Moab, in the foothills of the LaSal Mountains and in Skull Valley, west of Salt Lake City.

SUWA and the NRDC have attached Wednesday's decision to their four remaining appeals. Bloch says he is hopeful that the board will apply the same reasoning to the other lease sales, and that the BLM will reconsider the protests that have been filed.

"We hope the BLM will read the writing on the wall," Bloch said.

The BLM does have two avenues of appeal, the SUWA attorney noted. The bureau can ask the Interior Board to reconsider its decision, or request that Interior Secretary Gale Norton assume jurisdiction over the case. But he calls the latter alternative a long shot.

"That would be extraordinary," Bloch said. "If she were to do that, it would have to be because her office felt like the opinion was sweeping in scope. I don't think that will happen, but it's possible."

Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News