On February 4, 2009, Utah became the launching pad for President Obama's promised rollback of unsavory -- even illegal -- "midnight regulations" by the Bush administration. By halting an oil and gas lease sale affecting some of that state's most remarkable wilderness, Interior Secertary Ken Salazar has served notice that eight years of earth-bashing is enough.
Salazar's action is testament to the powerful role legal action plays in environmental defense. An Earthjustice lawsuit filed in December 2008 kept the Bush lease sale on hold until the new administration could take office.
The contested areas, comprising some 110,000 acres, are near Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, Dinosaur National Monument, and Nine Mile Canyon. They include vast stretches of wilderness and lands that contain the nation's greatest density of ancient rock art and other cultural resources.
Although thrilled at Salazar's action, Earthjustice attorney Robin Cooley said legal action will continue going forward.
Representing 14 conservation groups, Cooley said their legal action addresses the larger issue of Resource Management Plans in Utah. Unless these problems are fixed, the oil and gas industry will continue trying to seize public lands and use them in destructive ways.
More than 5 million acres of public lands, including national park lands and monuments, remain imperiled as long as the flawed RMPs -- crafted recently during the Bush era -- stay in effect, Cooley said. Problems include failure to address air pollution and climate change, failure to protect cultural resources, and failure to limit damage from off road vehicle use.
The groups argued that the leases did not meet legal requirements regarding air quality analysis, the impacts of climate change, and the presence of archaeological sites. One of the contested areas, Nine Mile Canyon, is world-renowned for its remarkable rock art panels and other cultural features.
And this is just a sliver of the illegal actions damaging to the environment leftover from the waning days of the Bush administration -- most of which Earthjustice is challenging.
"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 new administration's attention," Cooley said. "The Earthjustice legal challenges provide a way for the new administration to quickly and easily resolve the issues and restore a balanced approach that protects our natural areas, wildlife, air and water."