Robert Redford joined members of Congress and a coalition of environmental, preservation and business groups to stop the Interior Department from auctioning Utah wilderness to oil and gas companies. Congressmen Baird (D-WA), Hinchey (D-NY), and Holt (D-NJ) are leading the charge on the Hill to stop the auction, which is scheduled to take place on December 19. At a press event today, the environmental groups -- led by NRDC, the Southern Utah Wilderness Association, and Earthjustice -- announced that they are taking legal action against the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to halt the leasing of more than 110,000 acres of land near Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, Dinosaur National Monument, and Nine Mile Canyon.
"You can't put a price on silence or solitude," said Robert Redford, actor, director and NRDC trustee. "Future generations deserve to experience the wildness and beauty of these lands, and to leave them as a legacy to generations that follow."
The Utah Bureau of Land Management has conducted a series of controversial lease sales throughout the Bush administration, but the upcoming sale has been unusually contentious because of the sensitivity of the wilderness lands and because BLM inadequately consulted with the National Park Service. In November, the Park Service asked BLM to omit 93 parcels of land that would impact parks and BLM has since deferred the leasing of 33 of these parcels.
Friday's sale would include lands that contain the nation's greatest density of ancient rock art and other cultural resources. These lands were recently made available to industry through hastily approved resource management plans that will have serious ramifications for 3 million acres of public lands.
"This sale is an early Christmas present to the oil and gas industry, from a lame duck administration with one foot already out the door," said Congressman Baird. "The way the Bush administration has tried to do this in secret is simply outrageous. Secretary Kempthorne must put a stop to this. Once these pristine wilderness lands are destroyed we can never get them back."
Congressman Rush Holt added: "Some people have criticized this as a gift to the oil companies. I think it is more a theft from the people. It is not too late for the Bureau of Land Management to overturn this. If they won't, maybe the courts will."
The lawsuit filed today by a coalition of environmental and preservation groups seeks to stop BLM from selling Utah's wilderness to the highest bidder, including oil and gas companies.
Following are additional statements by the groups who are trying to prevent this 11th hour giveaway:
"The Bush administration has rushed to get these leases out the door," said Sharon Buccino, Senior Attorney for NRDC. "In their midnight maneuvering, BLM failed to complete the analysis required by federal law for the protection of America's natural and cultural treasures."
"BLM cut corners on this lease sale, which will do nothing to lower the price that Americans pay at the pump or to heat their homes," said Stephen Bloch, Conservation Director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "What it will do, however, is leave a legacy of ruin in some of Utah's most iconic landscapes."
"Although the short-term fix is to cancel the lease sale, in the longer term, we will be urging the Obama administration to revise six recently finalized BLM land-use plans for Utah and make sure no new leases are issued on lands deserving wilderness or other protection in the meantime," said The Wilderness Society's Dave Alberswerth. "If not fixed, the land-use plans would cement a short-sighted legacy of destruction for these irreplaceable lands."
"Bush is giving oil and gas companies the Christmas of a lifetime by robbing the American people of their Western natural heritage and handing it over to those who will gut it for personal gain," said Robin Cooley, the Earthjustice attorney who is handling the lawsuit.
"Nine Mile Canyon is often called the World's Longest Art Gallery because it contains the nation's densest collection of prehistoric rock art sites, including over 10,000 Native American rock art images," said Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "We included Nine Mile Canyon on the list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places because it's being damaged, perhaps permanently, by oil and gas drilling-related truck traffic near the canyon. BLM agrees that dust and chemicals from the traffic are damaging this fragile place, which makes its decision to approve even more leases -- and more truck traffic -- bewildering."
"The BLM's December lease sale still contains numerous lease tracts that would despoil the experience of visitors to Utah's national parks," said Karen Hevel-Mingo, National Parks Conservation Association Southwest Regional Office Program Manager. "Viewing oil rigs alongside arches, or industrialization while driving to the world famous Dinosaur Quarry Wall, is not what Americans expect or deserve in our national parks."
"Utah's Red Rock country is one of our nation's most magnificent wild landscapes, and represents one of the last remaining remnants of America's wilderness heritage. Unfortunately, Utah's wilderness quality lands are some of the most threatened," said Myke Bybee, Public Lands Representative for the Sierra Club. "The Bush administration's gift to the oil industry is just the final act in their eight-year campaign to turn Utah's irreplaceable wilderness legacy into short-term profits."
View more information about the December 19 lease sale, including maps and photos.
Terry Winckler, Earthjustice, (510) 550-6716
Erin Allweiss, NRDC, (202) 513-6254
Stephen Bloch, SUWA, (801) 428-3981
Dave Slater, The Wilderness Society, (202) 429-8441
Virgil McDill, NTHP, (202) 588-6218
Andrea Keller Helsel, NPCA, (202) 454-3332
Kristina Johnson, Sierra Club, (415) 977-5619
Bill Hedden, Grand Canyon Trust, (928) 774-7488
Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.