The Bureau of Land Management intends to lease thousands of acres in the San Rafael Swell for oil and gas development, including many areas it has concluded hold wilderness and recreational values, such as Eagle Canyon and the area near the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry.
At its Nov. 19 auction in Salt Lake City, the agency will sell leases to 82 parcels covering nearly 144,000 acres in Emery, Carbon and Uintah counties.
While Emery County officials see much to praise in the leases, wilderness advocates say the sale indicates Utah BLM is headed in "the wrong direction" in how it decides which public lands to open up to energy development.
Dozens of the parcels overlay lands proposed for protection under America's Red Rock Wilderness Act, pending before Congress.
"We're disappointed to see BLM offering so many parcels that conflict with wilderness-caliber landscapes. These are areas where BLM agrees there are wilderness characteristics, but under Bush-era resource plans they aren't mandated to protect those values," said Steve Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "Places Utahns think about when they think of the Swell are absolutely on the chopping block."
Bloch doubted BLM's drilling stipulations attached to the leases would do much to protect their wilderness characteristics. His group may protest the leases, Bloch said.
The Swell, which many believe worthy for designation as a national monument, dominates the lands to be leased at the November sale. Other sites include a big patch east of Price near the Tavaputs Plateau and isolated parcels in the Uinta Basin.
Emery County officials hope to see more drilling, but stress wilderness study areas, or WSAs, need to be kept off-limits. The value of lands with "wilderness characteristics," however, is in the eye of the beholder, according to County Commissioner James Nelson, who lives in Ferron, not far from Eagle Canyon, a favorite ATV destination.
"We favor energy development, but we are also in favor of sensible energy production," said Nelson, who chairs the Utah BLM's Resource Advisory Council.
"Sometimes you look at an area, like around the dinosaur quarry, and it may include hundreds of acres of flat wasteland, whereas the quarry itself is much smaller area," Nelson said. "As long as we are protecting the resource and not harming the quarry we should allow development."
Industry representatives had nominated for leasing nearly 400 parcels managed by BLM's Price Field Office in recent years. Officials declined to auction more than three-fourths of these largely because energy development was not compatible with the uses designated under this area's resource management plan.
"We had a lot of acres nominated, but leasing reform is requiring us to take a thorough look at these nominated lands," BLM spokeswoman Megan Crandall said. "We deferred anything in a WSA and in occupied sage grouse habitat."
But non-WSA lands found to hold wilderness characteristics known as wilderness inventory areas, or WIAs are not always supposed to be managed for wilderness.
"They looked at the lands and determined they would be best managed for other uses," Crandall said.
This is the situation for the 39,000-acre Eagle Canyon WIA, located between the Wedge Overlook and Interstate 70 near the Moore cutoff road, and the 37,000-acre Lost Spring Wash WIA, between Mexican Mountain and U.S. Highway 6. The BLM sale features 49 leases that overlap WIAs 10 on Eagle Canyon and 11 on Lost Spring Wash.
Meanwhile, BLM officials conceded they erred on four leases that appear to impinge on the dinosaur quarry, part of a 721-acre National Natural Landscape that Congress designated in 1965. SUWA's written comments pointed out that this area is supposed to be off-limits.
"We will try to bring some clarity to this through errata," Crandall said. "This is why we like citizen groups to get involved, read plans and make comments."