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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Riding out of the Little Grand Canyon of the San Rafael Swell April 2, 2011, in the San Rafael Swell in central Utah.
These lands provide recreational opportunities of all stripes. —Tim Wagner

SALT LAKE CITY — Critics assert the geologic mystique of central Utah's San Rafael Swell could be in jeopardy if a proposal to open the area to potential oil and gas development goes through.

Residents joined by the Sierra Club and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance staged a protest and rally Monday outside the Bureau of Land Management's downtown Salt Lake offices, voicing their opposition to a planned November lease of the land.

Earlier this summer, the land management agency proposed that 82 parcels covering nearly 144,000 acres out of the Price and Vernal field offices would be offered at a competitive lease sale at an oil and gas auction Nov. 19.

It is the largest offering of land by the BLM in Salt Lake City since the controversial oil and gas lease auction of December 2008 in which activist Tim DeChristopher bid on parcels to drive up prices out of protest.

When it announced this auction, the agency kicked off a 30-day window for protest that ends Monday. The agency will review the protests and determine if any of the parcels merit being pulled from consideration.

The Sierra Club's Tim Wagner said the San Rafael Swell is inappropriate for development because it is a recreational mecca that attracts thousands of people awed by its unique character.

"These lands provide recreational opportunities of all stripes," Wagner said.

The San Rafael Swell's distinctive landscape features canyons, barren reefs and hoodoos that make up an array of geology that has served as the cinematic backdrop for films. In the 2009 movie "Star Trek," the area portrayed Spock's home planet of Vulcan.

Areas within the swell such as Eagle Canyon and Lost Springs Wash have been proposed for wilderness, but the BLM stressed that any actual wilderness study areas or land officially classified as wilderness are not part of the auction. Any sage grouse habitat has been also pulled from consideration.

Wagner said about 80,000 acres of the land on the table for potential development should be nixed.

"We decided we needed to draw a line in the sand and say no to the BLM. We are not going to let you do this," Wagner said. "It is such an amazing area of central Utah. It makes no sense."

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While Wagner said he believes this is the first time the San Rafael Swell area has been considered for a BLM auction, the agency counters that there are already existing leases in the swell for oil and gas, some that are active.

"There are some parcels that are in between or adjacent to existing gas leases," said BLM spokeswoman Megan Crandall, adding that some of the parcels are not far from high-producing gas wells.

Information about the proposed auction can be found online at the BLM's website at www.blm.gov/ut/st/en.html.

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