National Park Service officials were relieved Tuesday when the Bureau of Land Management decided to pull from an oil and gas lease sale next month several parcels that were too close for comfort to Arches and Canyonlands national parks and Dinosaur National Monument.
But the war with the BLM to protect the two national parks and the monument from encroaching oil and gas development is still on. That war now includes two letters from members of Congress, urging Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne to do more to protect the areas.
The Park Service had expressed concern about 93 parcels around the parks and monument that the BLM planned to offer during the Dec. 19 lease sale in Salt Lake City. On Tuesday, the BLM said that it would defer from offering 24 of the parcels, according to the Park Service. That includes at least temporarily pulling a parcel off the table that could have hosted a drill rig within view of Utah's iconic Delicate Arch.
"It's a huge sigh of relief for us," said Mike Snyder, Denver-based regional director for the Park Service.
The Park Service had concerns about 93 parcels and had asked in a Nov. 24 letter to BLM state director Selma Sierra that 71 of those parcels near Canyonlands and Arches and 17 parcels near Dinosaur all be deferred on some level. Out of those parcels, the BLM granted the Park Service's request to completely pull from the sale 24 parcels totaling 37,119 acres near the parks and monument to allow for more review and analysis.
Sales of the remaining 64 parcels, covering more than 93,000 acres, must be deferred unless the BLM can meet certain conditions laid out by the Park Service.
Watchdogs aren't exactly rejoicing.
"It sounds like a window-dressing deal," said Stephen Bloch, an attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "It sounds like the Park Service was rolled."
Bloch said that in addition to leaving dozens of parcels in the sale next month that the Park Service had wanted pulled, the deal does nothing to address parcels in other "spectacular, wilderness-quality lands" such as Desolation Canyon, Nine Mile Canyon and the White River.
"The lease sale continues to be a disaster in the making for Utah's public lands" Bloch said.
The BLM on Tuesday released a map that showed several parcels around Nine Mine Canyon had also been removed from the sale offerings.
Earlier this month, state BLM leaders had decided at the last minute, without telling the Park Service first, to add certain parcels to the Dec. 19 sale. Park Service officials quickly found out that the parcels bordered Arches and Canyonlands national parks and Dinosaur National Monument.
Snyder said the 24 parcels pulled from the sale have only been deferred until the next quarterly BLM oil and gas lease sale. He said the Park Service now has time to more closely look at the potential impacts developing those parcels might have on the parks and monument.
"We're happy for now," Snyder said. "We have our work cut out for us between now and the next sale."
Under pressure from upset residents near Moab, the BLM last week agreed to pull from the lease sale a 600-acre parcel that included an area with homes and a golf course in the Spanish Valley area.
Snyder said he negotiated Monday in Salt Lake City with BLM state director Selma Sierra on how to handle the parcels still being offered next month. He said the BLM agreed to "enhanced" protection requirements to reduce sound impacts by oil and gas activities or to minimize the amount of light pollution that industry brings to night skies in remote areas valued for star gazing.
In cases where the BLM has exceptions, modifications and waivers that still allow drilling near park and monument borders on 64 parcels, Snyder said the BLM and Park Service have worked out a "consultation process" that the BLM has agreed to use for those concerns, including air quality.
Snyder and Sierra also agreed Monday to renew by the end of this year a 1993 memorandum of understanding that stipulated the BLM should give advance notice to the Park Service about oil and gas lease offerings.
Sierra said this week's "constructive dialogue" resulted in a "positive outcome" between the two agencies, which each have environmental stewardship missions.
But lawmakers this week took up the Park Service's aim to protect the remaining parcels. Eight senators wrote to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne on Tuesday, urging him to prohibit oil and gas activities adjacent to the parks and monument. The letter was signed by Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.; Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii; Benjamin Cardin, D-Md.; Richard Durbin, D-Ill.; Bernard Sanders, I-Vt.; Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.; Tom Harkin, D-Iowa; and Russell Feingold, D-Wis.
"We encourage you to continue this important work and postpone the entire sale until stakeholders can research likely impacts and reach consensus on a way forward," the letter said.In a separate letter, Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., who is House chairman of the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, told Kempthorne in a separate letter to halt the "ill-advised fire sale" of leases.
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