In a high-profile reversal of the Bush administration, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Wednesday the government is scrapping the leases of 77 parcels of federal land for oil and gas drilling in Utah's redrock country.
"In the last weeks in office, the Bush administration rushed ahead to sell oil and gas leases near some of our nation's most precious landscapes in Utah," Salazar said from Washington in a teleconference call with reporters.
He said he had ordered the Bureau of Land Management, which is part of the Interior Department, to not cash checks from winning bidders for parcels at issue in a lawsuit filed by environmental groups.
The sales were worth $6 million to the government in addition to royalties on any oil or gas production.
"We will take time and a fresh look at these 77 parcels to see if they are appropriate for oil and gas development," Salazar said.
A federal judge put the sale of the 77 parcels, totaling about 100,000 acres, on hold last month until the lawsuit was resolved. Now, Salazar is refusing to sell any of them — at least until the new administration reviews them.
Conservation groups promised to press ahead with the lawsuit to challenge long-term management plans that made the sale of the parcels possible. The BLM approved the plans, governing 7 millions acres of public land in Utah, last year.
Among critics of December's lease auction was Robert Redford, who owns Sundance ski resort and has spent a lifetime on horseback in southern Utah's canyons.
"I see this announcement as a sign that after eight long years of rapacious greed and backdoor dealings, our government is returning a sense of balance to the way it manages our lands," Redford, 71, said in a statement.
Salazar said some of the lease parcels are too close to Arches and Canyonlands national parks and Dinosaur National Monument. Other leases taken off the table were on the high cliffs of whitewater sections of the Green River through Desolation Canyon.
Salazar also acted to protect plateaus populated by big game atop Nine Mile Canyon, sometimes called the world's longest art gallery because of its ancient rock-art panels.
The National Park Service protested the Dec. 19 auction weeks before it was held, and the BLM removed some parcels from the auction list in response.
At first, the BLM was going to auction a parcel so close to Delicate Arch, the signature landmark at Arches park near Moab, drills might have been visible through the center of the 33-foot-wide span. That parcel was 1.3 miles away. It was taken off the auction list under Park Service protest, but the BLM took bids on other drilling parcels within view of national parks.
Fifty-five contested parcels are in areas proposed for protection under America's Redrock Wilderness Act, which has lingered in Congress for years because the Utah delegation opposes it.
"This area in southern Utah is the land of my youth," said Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., who grew up in Colorado and is co-chairman of the congressional National Parks Caucus. "Its beauty is stunning, its silence is deafening and it is simply no place for an oil derrick."
Earthjustice, the group that filed the auction lawsuit, estimated the lands in question would produce only an hour and a half of oil for the whole country at current consumption rates.
But those parcels also could have produced clean-burning natural gas, said industry groups, which condemned Salazar's decision as counter to President Barack Obama's goal of energy independence.
"We hope today's decision does not signal the administration is returning to the failed policies of the past, leaving much of America's vast energy resources locked up while the nation's demand for energy continues to grow," Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, said in a statement.
Salazar said he was allowing the lease of 39 other parcels auctioned off in December that were not challenged in the lawsuit.
The BLM is scheduled to hold its next auction in Utah on March 24. It wasn't known Wednesday what lands might go up for sale next.
"We would hope that Interior will closely scrutinize this sale list and take BLM off autopilot under the Bush administration," said Steve Bloch, a staff lawyer for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
The decision does not mean the environmental activist who disrupted the auction is off the hook, U.S. Attorney Brett Tolman told The Associated Press. Tim DeChristopher, a 27-year-old economics major at the University of Utah, won $1.7 million in leases even though he had no intention or means to pay.
Tolman said some people want DeChristopher prosecuted for running up lease prices and safeguarding several parcels between Arches and Canyonlands national parks.
To many environmentalists, however, DeChristopher is a hero. He said Wednesday he was willing to go to federal prison if he is charged for his act of monkey-wrenching. "This is how the environmental movement should be working," he said.
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Bureau of Land Management: http://www.blm.gov