The National Trust joined a coalition of environmental and preservation groups in a lawsuit on December 18th that will temporarily prevent the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) from issuing oil and gas leases on 80 contested parcels of Utah wilderness, including land adjacent to Nine Mile Canyon and other national parks, for thirty days (until January 19). Although BLM will go forward with auction, the agency has agreed not to issue the contested leases and will hold the proceeds from the sale in escrow until a decision is rendered by the U.S. District Court. If the leases are allowed, affected park sites in Utah would include areas in and near Nine Mile Canyon as well as areas just outside of Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park and Dinosaur National Monument. If issued as proposed, the lease sale would elevate the already high levels of industrial traffic in the canyon, placing additional rock art sites in "world's longest art gallery" at risk.
In addition to the Trust, the environmental and preservation groups filing the case include: Earthjustice, Grand Canyon Trust, National Parks Conservation Association, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, and the Wilderness Society. They issued the following joint statement:
“Our legal actions have delayed today’s transfer of pristine Utah wilderness, but the fight is not over. We will get our day in court with BLM, and we will do all we can to protect Utah’s unspoiled landscapes. Yet President Bush can still do something to save these areas: he can take Utah’s unprotected wilderness off the auction block for good. This is not a mess that should be left to the Obama administration.”
The Trust has been spearheading an effort to save the significant cultural resources of Nine Mile Canyon in Utah from inappropriate oil and gas development initially by placing the site on its 2008 Eleven Most Endangered Historic Places List. In addition, the Trust filed an official protest and began a grass roots campaign directed at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to stop the leasing of these lands, which include more than 10,000 prehistoric rock art images. In addition, although only a small portion of the Canyon has been systematically surveyed for cultural resources, at least 830 prehistoric sites have been formally recorded by archaeologists. It is estimated that these sites, which constitute the basis of the proposed Nine Mile Canyon Archaeological District, represent only about 10 percent of the overall total within the canyon.
The outcome of legal proceedings will depend on the following steps:
The coalition has negotiated a deal that will postpone issuance of the challenged leases until the U.S. District Court holds a hearing to address our arguments. The judge in the case will issue an order today setting a hearing date for January 16th.
The hearing will be on the coalition’s motion for a preliminary injunction (PI) which will not be easy. If a PI is obtained, the lands will have been saved for the incoming Obama administration. If the coalition loses on the PI, the lease deal will be completed.
The BLM (Bush administration) agreed not to issue the challenged leases before January 19th. If the coalition does not get a PI and the lease deal is completed, the case will proceed to summary judgment and a new round of briefing and another hearing later in 2009. The judge may still in the end declare the leases unlawful. However, even before that, the Obama administration could take action to return the money paid for the lands and withdraw them from further consideration for leasing.
Prior to the lawsuit, the National Trust asked BLM for additional deferrals on the proposed leasing sites, which are available for review at http://www.preservationnation.org/issues/public-lands/additionalresources/NMC_Dec_19_2008_Protest.pdf. To review the legal brief filed with the District Court please visit http://docs.nrdc.org/land/files/lan_08121901a.pdf.
Reprinted by permission of the Public Policy Department of the National Trust