SALT LAKE CITY — The Bureau of Land Management in Utah announced Friday it was pulling nearly 100,000 acres of land off the table for potential oil and gas development, much to the relief of conservation groups and the ire of Utah's Republican congressmen.
As a result of the action, groups such as the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance are withdrawing their protest that was filed over the Nov. 19 auction, which proposed to offer tracts of land in the San Rafael Swell at the oil and gas lease sale. The acreage that will be offered to industry has now been reduced to 44,021 acres.
“This is wonderful news for Utah’s outdoor industry,” said Peter Metcalf, CEO and president of Black Diamond Inc., a Utah-based manufacturer of outdoor equipment. “This decision makes good sense."
By deferring the parcels, the BLM said it will spend more time to address concerns over cultural resources, sensitive species, and potential impacts to the Old Spanish Trail. A deferment does not mean the parcels are permanently off limits and the land could be offered at a subsequent auction.
The action brought sharp criticism by Utah's Republican delegation and accusations that the federal agency is caving into pressure by environmental groups.
"It’s silly of the BLM to think that it can pass this arbitrary decision off as anything other than what it really is, which is an appeasement of special interest groups that are opposed to all resource development in this area," said Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah. "Their motives are thinly veiled."
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said the action constituted a "bait and switch" that reinforces the belief that the agency has become a vehicle for "radical environmentalists," while Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said the move hurts American jobs and energy independence. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, also released a statement condemning BLM's actions.
The San Rafael Swell spans about 2 million acres in south-central Utah and is a large geologic anticline formed 50 million years ago. Activities such as hiking, biking, rock climbing and off-roading are popular in the area.
Multiple groups were outraged when the BLM proposed to offer parcels of land in the area for potential oil and gas development, although some of those parcels were adjacent to existing oil and gas wells.
The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and others asserted the parcels should not have been offered because of their wilderness-quality value and the inevitable despoiling of a landscape that would result.
In late September, BLM Director Juan Palma met with residents of Emery County, Price and Moab, as well as concerned groups over the issue.
"We were very concerned about the parcels that were being put out to lease," said Diane Orr, with the Utah Rock Art Research Association. "But when we walked out, I really felt a commitment to protect the resources. This is the way the process is supposed to be in that you really weigh the value in terms of what is on the land."
The groups that filed the protest included the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Natural Resources Defense Council, Grand Canyon Trust and Great Old Broads.