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Editorial: BLM right to hold off on the San Rafael Swell

Published November 21, 2013 11:25 am

Valuable parcels pulled from auction
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The Bureau of Land Management did the right thing when it pulled federal land parcels in Emery County from a planned auction of drilling leases in order to further study the potential impacts on sensitive archaeological sites.

Utah BLM Director Juan Palma is responding, as he has an obligation to do, to objections from the public and conservation groups. Hardly the "radical environmentalists" portrayed by Utah's two senators, those organizations and individuals have conducted a thorough inventory of the ancient rock art in the areas in question — more thorough than the BLM has the funding to do.

Addressing their concerns is responsible management, and Palma should be applauded, not criticized.

The George W. Bush-era regional plans adopted by the BLM during the final Bush years favor oil and gas drilling, all-terrain vehicle use and mining over preservation of Utah's special places. The imbalance was obvious in the list of lands that had been included in the lease auction conducted this week before Palma stepped in.

The areas around Eagle Canyon, Old Spanish Trail and the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry are valuable, not only for the cultural relics but for wildlife habitat and quiet recreation. Some had been designated earlier by the BLM itself as worthy of protection.

If drilling were allowed there, those areas would never achieve status as wilderness or as wilderness study areas. And that's exactly what the Bush administration wanted.

Keeping the valuable San Rafael Swell off the auction block will not cause the collapse of energy development in Utah, as Utah's senators imply. Developers already have tied up many more acres than they are developing. More than 4.2 million acres of Utah public lands are under lease, but just over 1.17 million acres are in production.

Under Barack Obama lease sales have increased, and between September 2011 and September 2012 there were more than 1,200 approved drilling permits that went unused in Utah.

The San Rafael Swell's scenic beauty and value for quiet recreation are largely unmatched, and the effects of development are not easily reversed. The effects of drilling rigs, roads, heavy machinery and air pollution in such fragile places must be thoroughly examined.

It's appropriate that the BLM follow its mission to manage a variety of activities on public lands and to "sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of America's public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations."