Geoff Liesik, Deseret News
Hayden Bytendorp of South Jordan touches a dinosaur fossil embedded in the quarry wall at Dinosaur National Monument.
When people are driving into the monument, we don't want them to see the pristine Yampa River on one side and a drill rig on the other. —Erika Pollard, National Parks Conservation Association

SALT LAKE CITY — A pair of environmental groups have launched a protest to a proposal by the Bureau of Land Management to offer oil and gas leases on land they say is too close to Dinosaur National Monument in eastern Utah and Colorado.

The parcels under protest are three tracts that contain 5,145 acres on the eastern boundary of the monument near the Deer Lodge entrance road that are proposed for lease and sale on Feb. 14 in Colorado.

The National Parks Conservation Association and The Wilderness Society, in their joint protest filed this week, say any leasing for commercial oil or gas development that close to the monument would cause "unacceptable impacts," and impacts the federal agency failed to adequately consider.

In proposing the sale or lease of the land, the groups said the agency is ignoring a memorandum that requires it to fully evaluate and disclose any impacts the activity might have on the monument.

The groups worry that should any of the land be used for oil or gas drilling, it will come at the peril of the night skies in the area, create air pollution concerns and be contrary to the visitor experience at the park, which saw visitation go up 8 percent from 2010 to 2011.

The increase was even more dramatic once the park's quarry visitor center and exhibit hall reopened last year after a six-year closure forced by structural issues. Annually, about 200,000 people visit the monument, which features 1,500 dinosaur fossils for viewing and an 80-foot-long mural which tells the story of the animals, the late Jurassic period and the area in general.

"These parks have a high value to the American public," said Erika Pollard, with the National Parks Conservation Association. "It is not appropriate to be developing so near and adjacent to these monuments."

A lease or sale of BLM parcels at auction does not equate to oil and gas development. A site-specific plan must be submitted before any surface is disturbed, and those plans contain certain environmental components that are analyzed in a separate review process. That review, according to the BLM, must be completed and approved before any drilling can happen, and more opportunity is available for public input. But protesters say the BLM shouldn't be able to have it both ways.

"It cannot find that issuing the protested parcels will not have significant impacts on Dinosaur National Monument, while at the same time wholly deferring evaluation and adoption of mitigation measures until the drilling stage," the letter reads. "The evaluation must take place now, and because it hasn't, the BLM cannot sell the protested parcels."

Pollard said the groups also commented on a separate offering of multiple parcels outside the entrance to the monument not far from Harper's Corner road.

Part of the problem, she added, is that the BLM is not fully considering the impacts of leasing thousands of acres of land in the immediate vicinity of the monument within the past several years.

"Development of these lands, in conjunction with the protested parcels, would not only transform the the landscape surrounding the national monument, but would also cause a wide range of cumulative impacts on the park," the protest letter reads.

Pollard added that it all boils down to protection of the monument, the environment and the visitor experience.

"When people are driving into the monument, we don't want them to see the pristine Yampa River on one side and a drill rig on the other," she said.

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