Washington, DC - One day after the Obama administration reversed a last minute decision by the Bush administration to lease wilderness quality lands in Utah to oil and gas companies, Congressman Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) and Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) led 72 other House members in pressing the current administration to defer any future lease sales involving major swaths of land being considered for protection through wilderness designations by Congress.
The House members, who have all either sponsored or cosponsored legislation to protect lands that are the subject of future lease sales, applauded yesterday's decision by the Obama administration concerning more than 100,000 acres in Utah and said it would be appropriate for the administration to delay future lease sales until it has time to review the proposals Congress has initiated to safeguard millions of public acres across the United States.
"In order to prevent the conveyance of more sensitive lands to the oil and gas industry, we strongly urge you to direct the BLM and the Forest Service to defer future lease sales of all public land under their jurisdiction that have been the subject of legislation in the 110th Congress that would designate them as wilderness or another protective status," Hinchey, Maloney and their 72 colleagues wrote to Salazar and Vilsack. "Doing so will allow your agencies time to further review the suitability of such tracts for leasing and development, while allowing oil and gas activities to continue on the tens of millions of acres of federal lands currently under lease...By putting a temporary hold on the leasing of these precious acres, your agencies would have time to review the merits of offering such areas for sale and provide Congress with an opportunity to safeguard that land forever."
Under the direction of the Bush administration, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in December 2008 offered lease sales on more than 100,000 acres of sensitive public lands in Utah, 45,000 of which have been the subject of legislation in Congress -- the America's Red Rock Wilderness Act -- that would designate them as wilderness. The America's Red Rock Wilderness Act, which Hinchey has authored since 1994, would designate as wilderness roughly 45,000 of the acres protected yesterday along with nearly 9 million other acres of pristine land in Utah, some of which has been the subject of other future lease sales.
Many of the acres that Interior Secretary Salazar helped block from lease sales yesterday are in close proximity to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks and Dinosaur National Monument. Other parcels would negatively impact the unmatched wild nature of Desolaton Canyon on the Green River, the remote Book Cliffs, as well as the world's largest outdoor art gallery -- an archaeological treasure trove known as Nine Mile Canyon.
As a last ditch attempt to help its friends and allies in the oil and gas industry, the Bush administration finalized six new Resource Management Plans (RMP) in October 2008 that called for 11 million acres of public land in Utah to be leased for energy production. The former administration did so despite the fact that oil and gas companies already have enormous swaths of land on which they have yet to produce.
Of the 89.7 million acres of on and offshore public land already leased by oil and gas companies only a little more than 25 percent has been used by those companies to produce energy. The Bush administration's lease RMPs in Utah were the result of private meetings between former Vice President Dick Cheney and top energy company executives who sought to raise their record profits to even higher levels.
"We are convinced that the new administration can have an onshore oil and gas program that both helps meet America’s energy needs, and at the same time protects for future generations those lands that harbor a wealth of environmental, wildlife, and cultural values," Hinchey, Maloney and their 72 colleagues wrote to Salazar and Vilsack. "We believe that in order to bring the balance needed to achieve both goals, your agencies will need to move very early in 2009 to halt the conveyance of more leases earmarked for sale by the Bush administration on lands proposed for protection. Unless such action takes place very soon, more sensitive lands that should be protected will be dedicated to inappropriate oil and gas development activities."
Hinchey's America's Red Rock Wilderness Act, which was originally proposed in a similar form in 1989 by former Utah Congressman Wayne Owens, would ensure the 9.4 million acres in Utah remain wild in their natural state, and strictly prohibit mining, road and dam construction, off-road vehicle use, and other activities that would destroy the area's special character. Non-consumptive uses such as hunting, fishing, camping, backpacking, hiking, and horseback riding would be permitted and grazing rights existing at the time of any wilderness designation would also be unaffected.
Maloney is the author of the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, which would designate all of the remaining roadless lands in the Northern Rockies as wilderness, the strongest protection the federal government can confer on public lands. Specifically, the bill would designate as wilderness nearly 7 million acres of wilderness in Montana, 9.5 million acres of wilderness in Idaho, 5 million acres of wilderness in Wyoming, 750,000 acres in eastern Oregon, and 500,000 acres in eastern Washington. Included in this total is over 3 million acres in Yellowstone, Glacier and Grand Teton National Parks.
Unless the Obama administration defers future action, lease sales scheduled under the Bush administration's RMPs will move forward on land subject to congressional protection. New federal onshore oil and gas lease sales planned under the Bush administration by the BLM are slated to occur later this month in Wyoming and Colorado and next month in other parts of Utah.