The Interior Department's Board of Land Appeals this week reversed the BLM's leasing of roughly 14,000 acres for energy development north of Nine Mile Canyon and just south of the Book Cliffs in central Utah. The leases, covering 16 parcels, have been suspended, effective immediately.
The agency, the board ruled, failed to adequately identify sensitive archaeological sites before offering the lease parcels for sale in October 2003.
In granting the leases, the agency rejected protests from the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which charged that selling the parcels without an adequate review violated requirements of the National Historic Preservation Act. The board agreed, determining that the BLM's Vernal and Moab field offices fell short in properly consulting with affected American Indian tribes.
"There is really no record that the BLM engaged in meaningful negotiations with the tribes, which have a demonstrable interest in these parcels, and no sign the BLM adequately investigated cultural sites which would have been threatened," SUWA attorney Steve Bloch said Thursday.
"This is the latest in a steady drumbeat of decisions which clearly show that the Utah BLM has followed an illegal 'lease first and think later' approach to issuing these leases."
Last summer, U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball overturned leases sold by the BLM in November 2003; the Interior Board of Land Appeals also has previously reversed the agency on leases sold between 2004 and last year.
Terry Catlin, the Utah BLM's energy team leader, acknowledged that the agency probably was too lax in approving some energy leases where cultural resources have come into play. But she maintains that the BLM has tightened things up considerably since 2003.
"Our standard is now a lot higher," she said. "SUWA has other cases pending [against the BLM], but they have also filed to exclude [the National Historic Preservation Act] as a cause of action. To me that indicates that even our critics are more comfortable now with how we're handling this.
"We protected the resource," she added, "but we were probably sloppy in our documentation. And that doesn't hold up in court."
Catlin said making things easier in this instance is that none of the leases are in production. They will remain suspended pending the outcome of an agency review.
Bloch said SUWA wants something more permanent.
"We think the leases actually need to be terminated, and we're going to pursue that," he said.