In a first, Utah eco-group sues feds over San Juan energy leases that threaten the ‘last great frontier for American archaeology’

(Brian Maffly | Tribune file photo) Josh Ewing, executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa, explores an alcove in Jenny Canyon, on March 27, 2018. This tributary of Recapture Canyon east of Blanding is part of a landscape where Anasazi cliff dwellings like this one remain hidden in the canyon walls. Ewing's Bluff-based group filed suit Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019, challenging the Bureau of Land Management's decision to issue numerous new oil and gas leases in this area blanketed with artifacts. Historic preservation groups fear the BLM lacks sufficient information about thousands of cultural sites to ensure their protection should the area get drilled.

During the past year, the Bureau of Land Management has aggressively leased lands in southeastern Utah for oil and gas over the objections of historic preservationists who fear the agency lacks sufficient information about thousands of cultural sites to ensure their protection should the area get drilled.

Now one group, Bluff-based Friends of Cedar Mesa, is suing to invalidate several leases issued last year around Alkali Ridge and Montezuma Canyon, an area richly endowed with the remnants of an ancient civilization.

“This administration’s all-out push for ‘energy dominance’ is skirting the law and putting resources at risk all around the West,” said Sarah Stellberg, staff attorney with Advocates for the West. “Nowhere is this more evident than in southeastern Utah, where Friends of Cedar Mesa is the ultimate underdog asking the federal government to follow its legal obligations. This case is an important challenge that will determine if laws meant to protect American history really mean something.”

The suit Stellberg filed Wednesday in U.S District Court in Salt Lake City asks the court to vacate the BLM’s decision to lease these lands and reverse the leases that were issued.

BLM officials declined to comment, citing a policy against discussing pending litigation.

Drawing its name from the archaeologically rich Cedar Mesa, the stewardship group devotes itself to education and the care of fragile cultural sites left by the ancient American Indians known as the Anasazi or Ancestral Puebloans. While it has protested past lease sales, Friends of Cedar Mesa has never before sued.

Executive Director Josh Ewing said he has repeatedly tried to “work respectfully” with land managers, but the Department of Interior has refused to take even a single acre or archaeological site out of the lease sales.

“Going to court is an absolute last resort for us,” Ewing said. “However, if we don’t stand up for these lands and cultural sites, no one will. Unlike nearby areas like Mesa Verde and Chaco, almost no one outside the archaeological community knows about this area. If we do nothing, the best-case scenario is that leasing prevents these lands from being protected for decades. Worst-case scenario: This cultural landscape becomes an industrialized wasteland and significant cultural sites are destroyed.”

During Barack Obama’s presidency, these lands were part of a proposed “master lease” plan, and the BLM routinely declined to consider these lands for leasing as industry nominated them for auction. With Donald Trump’s ascent to the White House, master leasing was swept aside under the direction of then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Many of the “deferred” parcels have been put up for auction, leading to one record-setting sale after another.

Utah will see its biggest lease sale in years, if not ever, on March 9, when the BLM accepts online bids on 156 parcels covering 217,000 acres around the state. Nineteen of these parcels, covering 32,000 acres, involve an area west Montezuma Canyon near the Colorado line.

Montezuma Canyon lacks the stunning scenery of the lands to the west that were briefly part of Bears Ears National Monument, including Cedar Mesa. But these canyons and mesas, nonetheless, are significant, featuring a historical record of human habitation dating back 9,000 years and numerous masonry remains of Puebloan cultures, according to the suit.

"The last great frontier for American archaeology” is how Don Simonis, a retired BLM archaeologist, characterized this area.

“What we know about this region hints at an enormous wealth of sites sacred to indigenous people and an almost unlimited potential for scientific study. In many of these lease parcels, less than 10 percent of the lands have been surveyed," Simonis said. "So the recorded sites the BLM knows about are just the tip of the iceberg. It’s safe to say this area has the highest density of archaeological sites in the United States.”

At issue in the case are 43 leases issued last March on 51,400 acres, some of them next to Hovenweep and Canyons of the Ancients national monuments. The environmental analysis the BLM conducted to support that sale was also used to justify a subsequent sale in December and the upcoming auction in March, so many more leases could be at stake.

All told, proposed and issued leases cover 112,000 acres, virtually blanketing this landscape with drilling rights, according to Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance attorney Landon Newell, whose organization is not involved with the suit but agrees the leases don’t pass legal muster.

“If the March 2018 environmental assessment [EA] is struck down, I don’t see how the subsequent sales won’t also be struck down,” Newell said. “It was inadequate on a lot of fronts. There was a lot more wrong with that EA than what is being attacked in the Friends of Cedar Mesa lawsuit.”

These sales also may be unnecessary to a robust oil and gas industry. In past six years, according to data compiled by Utah regulators, only six wells have been drilled in San Juan County, evidence that industry is not that bullish on southeastern Utah.

“So why are you rushing to lease these areas with enormous resource values for everything else?” Newell asked.

Issuing these leases obligates the BLM to manage these lands in ways that accommodate future development to the potential detriment of other resources, even if they are never drilled, SUWA and other groups say.

Most of Montezuma Canyon/Alkali Ridges leases were sold to an obscure company called Ayres Energy, sometimes spelled Ayers on its BLM filings, that has no history in the oil and gas business. Attempts to reach Ayres principal Jeremy Westphal were not successful.