Stuart Johnson, Deseret News
Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar visits Salt Lake City for the signing of the Greater Natural Buttes Record of Decision Tuesday, May 8, 2012.

DENVER  — The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals said Wednesday critics opposed to the  controversial decision by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to rescind 77 contentious oil and gas leases missed their deadline to challenge the Obama administration action.

The three-member panel split 2-1 in the case pitting multiple oil and gas companies, as well as Uintah, Carbon and Duchesne counties, against the federal government.

Withdrawal of the infamous 77 leases happened in February 2009, just months after bidder Tim DeChristopher won 14 parcels valued at $1.8 million at a Salt Lake City Bureau of Land Management auction marred by protests.

DeChristopher jumped into the fray with his bidding on parcels he had no intention of paying for as a way to drive up prices and keep energy companies from drilling on land he said was located in pristine areas and too close to national parks.

His subsequent arrest by federal agents and imprisonment on two felony convictions after a jury trial has been at the center of an environmental movement that touts peaceful protests as way to spark public policy change.

The energy companies and impacted counties have since gone about challenging the decision to yank the parcels, which Salazar said was the result of a review that he said showed they were offered in the waning hours of the Bush administration without proper environmental considerations.

On Feb. 6, 2009, Salazar sent an internal memo to deputy director Ken Hoffman of the Utah BLM office, directing him to pull the leases.

On Feb. 12, Hoffman sent a letter to the successful energy company bidders, informing them of Salazar's decision.

The counties and energy companies said the suit was brought on May 13, exactly 90 days after Hoffman's letter was sent.

In a decision reached in September of 2010, U.S. District Judge Dee Benson said although Salazar's actions were later proven to be wrong and outside his legal authority, the lawsuit could not proceed because it was brought too late.

Benson said the time clock on the decision began to tick when Salazar sent the internal memo, not when Hoffman's letter was sent.

The Denver court agreed.

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