As BLM Lease Sale Looms, Advocates Press to Save Nine Mile Canyon and Other Public Lands from Drilling

Posted on: December 18th, 2008 by National Trust for Historic Preservation
An example of the Native American rock art in Nine Mile Canyon.

An example of the Native American rock art in Nine Mile Canyon.

Yesterday, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and a coalition of environmental groups joined actor Robert Redford and Congressman Brian Baird (D-Wash.) in a press conference organized by environmental, historic preservation and business groups who oppose a controversial oil and gas lease sale set for December 19th. Several parcels included in this sale are on relatively pristine lands near Nine Mile Canyon, which the Bureau of Land Management acknowledges has the highest concentration of Native American rock art in the United States.

Dave Albersworth (The Wilderness Society), Pat Mitchell (Grand Canyon Trust), and Ti Hays (National Trust for Historic Preservation) listen to Robert Redford speak.

Dave Albersworth (The Wilderness Society), Pat Mitchell (Grand Canyon Trust), and Ti Hays (National Trust for Historic Preservation) listen to Robert Redford.

Redford spoke reverently of the Utah wild lands endangered by the proposed leasing and sharply rebuked BLM’s decision to go forward with the sale. He at one point referred to the decision makers with BLM as “morally criminal.” Rep. Baird, who grew up in Fruita, Colorado, just a few miles from the Utah border, also spoke fondly of his time among the canyons for which so many cherish the Utah public lands. He rightly reminded the audience that although the lease sale involves land within the State of Utah, the land is owned and managed by the federal government on behalf of the American people. In light of the national interest in protecting the cultural and natural resources affected by the proposed leases, he called on BLM to cancel the sale.

Also yesterday, the National Trust -- along with many of the groups that held the press conference -- filed a complaint in federal court challenging the lease sale scheduled for December 19th. The complaint claims that, in deciding to sell additional leases near Nine Mile Canyon, BLM has failed to consult and adequately assess effects on historic properties under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. The complaint also alleges violations of the National Environmental Policy Act and Federal Land Policy and Management Act.

When first proposed in early November, the lease sale generated almost immediate and widespread criticism from a range of interested parties. The National Park Service (NPS) objected to BLM’s decision to sell over 90 parcels surrounding Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park and Dinosaur National Monument—a decision made without prior consultation with the NPS. Wilderness groups decried the sale because they argued it would allow road construction in several remote and mostly undeveloped areas of Utah’s famed red rock country. Even officials with Grand County, Utah voiced concern because the sale included portions of the aquifer from which the City of Moab pumps its drinking water. In the end, BLM did respond to some of the concerns for the proposed sale and withdrew nearly 200,000 acres, including about 100,000 acres surrounding the national park units and additional acreage in culturally rich Nine Mile Canyon.

However, as Timothy Egan pointed out in the New York Times on Saturday, significant problems with the sale remain. For instance, 16 parcels surrounding Nine Mile Canyon are still up for auction that, if sold, would lead inevitably to more truck traffic in the canyon. In recent years, the increasingly heavy truck traffic from natural gas drilling projects has caused dust and corrosive chemicals to settle on and damage the canyon’s world-renown prehistoric rock art panels. The complaint filed this morning challenges BLM’s decision to sell each of these parcels.

Help the National Trust for Historic Preservation protect Nine Mile Canyon by writing your representatives in Congress today. Urge them to ask BLM to refrain from formally awarding the leases to the winning bidders in Friday’s lease sale until each of the legal and administrative challenges to the sale have been resolved.

-- Ti Hays

Ti Hays is the Public Lands Counsel at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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