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Saying Goodbye to a Bad Bush-Era Folly in Utah

Canyonlands NP_NPSCanyonlands National Park, courtsey National Park Service

We've all heard the saying, "All good things must come to an end."  In the world of protecting majestic landscapes for future generations, we like to believe that "All bad things must come to an end."

Such was the case recently when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a petition brought forth by three Utah counties and three energy companies over a controversial oil and gas lease sale by the Bureau of Land Management of Utah in the waning days of the Bush administration in 2008. Many of these leases were in special places such as Monitor and Merrimac Buttes, both iconic red rock sandstone regions close to Moab, Utah, and Canyonlands National Park. It also included a lease immediately adjacent to Dinosaur National Monument in northeastern Utah.

According to Bush-era protocol, one developed by the quite secret and now infamous Cheney Energy Task Force within four months after the Bush-Cheney team took over the White House, the BLM was instructed to make oil and gas development its number one priority on all public lands. Over the course of the next eight long years, we witnessed an assault by the industry on many of our special public lands throughout the West, leaving a dirty legacy today in states like Utah and Wyoming, the likes of which we'd never seen before.

As a final gift to the industry before leaving office, the BLM authorized these 77 leases to be auctioned off less than a month before President Obama took office. This particular sale was made famous by the actions of Tim DeChristopher who, after joining a large street protest organized by the Sierra Club, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, and our other Utah partners, took it upon himself to enter the auction and offer up millions in bogus bids to keep the leased areas from falling into the wrong hands. Of course, Tim's actions soon became a legendary sacrifice, as he ended up serving nearly two years in federal prison as a result.

At the get-go, however, it was the good old-fashioned organizing and legal work from the Sierra Club, SUWA, and others that finally convinced then Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to pull the controversial leases a few weeks later, acknowledging that the BLM had failed to properly analyze the impacts of the proposed leases. In response, Uinta, Carbon, and Duchesne counties in Utah, along with three oil and gas companies, challenged our suit but lost at the district and Tenth Circuit courts. They then petitioned the Supreme Court to hear the case, where they finally and definitively lost in October.

This is a significant victory for protecting some of Utah's spectacular public lands from the constant onslaught of dirty energy. Unfortunately, it appears that a similar situation is playing out again in Utah, where the state BLM office is still hamstrung by Bush-era policy. In September, the agency announced that it is putting on its scheduled November lease sale 50 parcels comprising nearly 80,000 acres within Utah's famous San Rafael Swell region, a proposal that we have organized against, as we continue to pressure the Department of Interior to bring the Utah BLM office out of the fossil-fuel loving era of George W. Bush.

For now, however, we can say that a bad thing has ended. 

By Tim Wagner, the Sierra Club's Our Wild America Campaign, Utah

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