Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's decision Wednesday to cancel the controversial lease sale of more than 100,000 acres of Utah land for oil and gas development is being lamented by industry and celebrated by environmentalists.
Salazar, a former Colorado senator, said that many of the 77 parcels offered in December were located too close to "American iconic treasures," and did not pass the smell test in terms of the environmental review process.
He called the approval of the parcels for lease/sale the result of "midnight actions" by the Bush administration, and just one of many decisions made by the previous administration that will come under his scrutiny.
"It will take time to restore the type of thoughtful approach" necessary to strike the right balance between development of the country's resources and protection of the environment, Salazar said in a teleconference from Washington, D.C.
Tim DeChristopher, who became the poster boy for environmental activists when he disrupted the auction, lauded the decision, saying it represents government taking a "serious stance in the defense of our land and climate."
He said the Interior Department's actions are an example of what can happen when the environmental movement works together to effect change.
"We were able to be far more effective than any one of us could have been on our own," DeChristopher said, referencing pushes by environmental groups from the outside and the public policy changes from the inside.
Utah's congressional delegates, for the most part, were not as pleased. All four Republicans released statements criticizing the decision, including Rob Bishop, chairman of the Congressional Western Caucus, which issued a scathing statement.
"Frankly, I'm astounded at the timing of this decision," he said. "At the very time our nation is debating legislation to create jobs and shore up our economy, the Department of Interior is taking steps to kill jobs and economic development in my home state."
Rep. Jason Chaffetz called it an "executive fiat," adding that it was a "cruel kick to an already downtrodden economy."
Salazar's actions nullify the December auction that parlayed 77 parcels of land into $6 million for the Bureau of Land Management.
That money will be refunded to bidders, Salazar said, but his decision does not affect the acquisition of 39 other parcels not called into question.
Salazar said the sale and lease of the 77 parcels was troubling because it was apparent not enough environmental review had been conducted, particularly related to air quality control concerns and consultation with the National Park Service.
Some of the affected property is in close proximity to Arches and Canyonlands national parks, Dinosaur National Monument and Nine Mile Canyon. Given that proximity, Salazar said, it was of concern to him that the Bush administration rushed to develop land that is on the "doorstep of some of our nation's most treasured landscapes."
Salazar said his agency will take a "fresh look" at the parcels and did not rule out the possibility that some of them may be offered for bid in the future if they are deemed appropriate for oil and gas development.
A bevy of environmental groups pushed the Obama administration to void December's auction, which actor Robert Redford termed as "morally criminal."
Environmentalists called Salazar's decision a reflection of "common sense and reverence for America's natural heritage."
A statement released by Earthjustice said canceling the auction is a good first step.
"We need a more balanced and legal approach to our natural resources and Salazar has started fixing these problems but there are many more that will also require the administration's attention," said Robin Cooley, an attorney with the group.
But petroleum industry representatives said the decision runs counter to the Obama administration's energy goals and predicted the action will have a "chilling effect" on Utah's economy.
The Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States said there was nothing "last minute" or "rushed" in the decision to offer the parcels for bid. It argues the auction was the result of a seven-year process in which ample planning and public input was sought.
"It is hard to imagine why the administration would come out with policies that limit economic development in Utah. A lease sale is an economic stimulus to the state and federal government," the association said.
Salazar's decision has no impact on the U.S. Attorney's review of DeChristopher's case. DeChristopher earned national attention and a brief time in handcuffs when he bid on land out of protest despite his lack of cash.
DeChristopher, too, concedes the Wednesday decision has no bearing on his case, but believes his actions were still worth it.
"I am encouraged by it because it protects land, but it doesn't protect me."
DeChristopher, 27, has admitted to bidding to run up the value of some parcels. He "won" 13 parcels of land, but said he had no intention of paying for them. No criminal charges have been filed.
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