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Battle Continues Over Oil Drilling in Utah's National Parks


Environmental groups from around the country joined forces recently to block oil and natural gas exploration near some national parks in the western state of Utah and won. But, the victory may be short-lived.

Flying towards Canyonlands National Park in southern Utah, a flat and barren land gently rises into dark red and cream colored masses of rock, in places forming spires that thrust high above the sandstone plateau. The Colorado River, a light green ribbon of water, cuts through the steep and winding canyon walls. Flying closer to the ground, one can see a fleet of trucks sitting adjacent to these dramatic landscapes, ready to roll across the delicate desert soil.

In a nearby 9,300-hectare area run by the Bureau of Land Management of Utah, or BLM, oil and gas companies funded a controversial exploratory project. The BLM authorized seismic exploration companies to use 23,000-kilogram "thumper" trucks to search for oil. The trucks sent seismic vibrations underneath the ground to record what's there. The "thumper" trucks have tires the size of small cars. They crush the soil and create deep ruts on the ground surface. And that's one of the reasons environmental groups fought oil exploration here.

Two months ago, environmental groups led by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, known as SUWA, convinced the Interior Board of Land Appeals, a federal court that governs cases involving public lands and natural resources, that the project was causing significant environmental damage.

"The land does have a voice," said Bruce Gordon, a member of SUWA. "This countryside we just flew over is unique in the world. The Canyon-lands country of Utah are totally unique, I don't think it should be sacrificed."

At the heart of the issue right now is what's on the surface - the cryptobiotic soil. This soil, comprised of bacteria, lichens, mosses, and other organisms, represents over 70 percent of the living desert ground cover in this area. The soil damaged by the trucks could take up to 250 years to recover, and park officials worry that increased numbers of off-road vehicles will use the tracks made by the trucks, making the damage even more severe. But Don Banks, a spokesperson for the BLM in Utah, does not agree.

"Our assessment was that this work was primarily on existing roads and trails," he said. "In total there was new surface disturbance to around 35 acres and only a small portion of that involves cryptobiotic soils."

However, the attorney for the environmental group SUWA, Steve Bloch, says Mr. Bank's figures are wrong. Mr. Bloch says the oil and gas companies and the seismic companies that were carrying out the work insisted that the trucks needed to stay on straight lines in order to collect accurate data.

"We have been on the ground watching this project as it unfolded," he said. "In some instances the trucks have been able to utilize existing roads and trails. But the trucks need to travel on essentially straight lines. These are straight lines that were drawn with a ruler, they are straight lines."

And that, Mr. Bloch says, means the trucks have to leave existing roads and cross pristine soils. The potential for damage to these soils is what helped win the battle for SUWA and the other environmental groups. But the fight is not over. The Bureau of Land Management is driven by the Bush administration's plan to expand energy development on federal lands. An internal memo from the Department of Interior in January of this year states that the BLM in Utah should make oil and gas exploration its number one priority. It's clear Don Banks plans to do just that.

"We look forward to providing the court with additional information and once we do, we are optimistic that the judge will ultimately agree with our assessment that the impacts of this project do not pose a significant impact to the environment," he said.

But the environmental army led by SUWA will continue to stand guard over the land it feels is threatened. "I don't think it is as simple as the BLM would hope," Mr. Bloch said. "I think Don knows we are not going to make it simple for them."

It usually takes several months or years, for the Interior Board of Land Appeals to reach a decision about whether to let projects like this one start up again. But the Bush administration doesn't want to wait. It has ordered the board to make a decision by August 31 of this year. Even if the board lets the project proceed, attorney Steve Bloch says SUWA will appeal the ruling to the federal district court. The thought of an industrial complex built within the rare red rock country of southern Utah motivates SUWA to continue fighting. Glimpses of development and accompanying industrial intrusions already exist.

The BLM has leased and re-leased land adjacent to southern Utah parks for oil exploration and mining since the 1950s. A working oil pump overlooking Arches National Park stands out like a rusty metal monster amidst the quiet red rock country. The rhythm of the pump beats like an alien's heartbeat, its breath, the smell of burnt rubber, penetrates the air. This is what Heidi Macintosh, conservation director for SUWA, fears will multiply in this desert if the BLM continues to provide leases to oil and gas companies.

"The question is not whether we need to produce oil, we do, everybody drives," she said. "The question is whether you do it here in one of the most scenic, remote places in the world. The answer has to be, 'no.' This is just too beautiful."

Americans consume nearly 40 percent of the world's oil reserves. Oil and gas companies are scouring U.S. soil for this "black gold" to help meet the country's energy needs. But SUWA believes some areas, like the rare red rock country of Southern Utah, should be off-limits. Right now the environmentalists are winning the battle for Southern Utah, but both sides vow to continue the fight.

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