The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has pulled back from an expanded oil-and-gas leasing program in Utah for the second time in a week.
The bureau announced late Tuesday that it was pulling auction parcels from inside Nine Mile Canyon, home to thousands of ancient rock art panels, and from nearby Desolation Canyon on the Green River.
Desolation Canyon is little changed since explorer John Wesley Powell in 1896 remarked on "a region of wildest desolation" while boating down the river.
The Bureau of Land Management didn't say why it was pulling the lease tracts, but the prospect of drilling in the wild region of eastern Utah brought condemnation from conservation groups.
Together with previous deferrals, the BLM has pulled nearly 100,000 acres from an auction set for Dec. 19, leaving 276,025 acres up for bid.
Last week, the BLM pulled drilling leases that were located on and near the borders of Arches National Park, Dinosaur National Monument and Canyonlands National Park, all in Utah.
The additional deferrals were announced after business hours Tuesday. BLM spokeswoman Mary Wilson said the agency would remove lease parcels from the "canyon bottoms" in Desolation and Nine Mile canyons, while leaving for auction other parcels on bluffs overlooking those canyons.
The BLM never intended to allow drillers to set up rigs inside the canyons, she said. It would have required drillers to reach the parcels from another pad, using directional drilling, she said.
A quick analysis by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance showed the BLM still planned to auction parcels atop plateaus populated by big game around Nine Mile Canyon, a tributary of the Green River.
Stephen Bloch, an attorney for the environmental group, said the BLM's second reversal in a week showed its original auction list was a "rush job." Bloch said his group still planned to file protests by a Thursday deadline.
The BLM also plans to auction 146,339 acres in Utah later this month for geothermal development, in addition to the more than 276,000 acres for oil and gas drilling.
The BLM made clear it was pulling lease parcels only for the time being, and might decide in the future to auction off the parcels inside the canyons with restrictions on noise, lighting or surface occupancy.