An auction in Salt Lake City, at the Bureau of Land Management's Utah office, is offering federal land for oil and gas exploration. For years, this has been "business as usual."  

But last December, leases for thousands of hectares potentially rich in oil and gas were auctioned despite lawsuits and protests from environmentalists. They said the parcels were visible from sensitive national parks and landmarks.

University of Utah student Tim DeChristopher was there, protesting with others. But in a quick change of mind, he became a bidder.

"I bid about $1.8 million. Those are the bids that I won. I also made a lot of bids where I drove up the cost for the oil companies. Protecting the land was certainly a motivation," he says.

DeChristopher's decision was a conscious step. He had no money or intention to buy. He wanted to complicate the process.
"When I was sitting there in the auction room and decided to make this choice, I was thinking, 'OK, if I do this, I will probably go to prison for about three years,' and I decided that it would be worth it to take the stand and serve that time."

On February 4th, the leases on 77 parcels near Arches National Park, Dinosaur National Monument and Nine Mile Canyon were canceled by the Obama administration.

The money was refunded, and the government says it will look at the parcels and the environmental review conducted under the Bush administration. The process could take years.

Greg Shoop oversees oil and gas exploration at the Bureau of Land Management in Washington.  

"There always is the conflict between which resource predominates in a particular area, because factually the oil and gas resource exists underground where it exists. It is not something you can do somewhere else."

Steve Bloch is director of the Utah office of the Wilderness Alliance, an environmental group.

"This is Nine Mile Canyon, and the area we are most interested in is over here, where there is no development right now," he explains, pointing to a map. "Each of these orange squares is a proposed new well location. They don't exist on the ground right now."

He claims the estimated reserves of oil and gas in the region are insignificant.  And yet, he says, the government was ready to sacrifice some of the most spectacular views of its national parks.

"There is no dispute that the lands at issue in this area are outside of the national parks, but they were literally, in some cases, right across the fence," he says. "And there you could see and hear and smell the oil and gas industry if they would be allowed to develop right next to our national parks."

Lowell Braxton is Utah representative for the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States.  

"We are not going to disturb a park. There you have a drilling rig on a location for maybe a month, and after that, if it is a successful well, the surface facilities put in blend in with the color of the landscape," he explains.

Nine Mile Canyon with its ancient rock art is already on the list of most endangered places, drawn up by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Archeologist Pam Miller is president of the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition. She says the gas and oil industries must learn to respect special places.

"They say the footprint is small. They say the well is here, but they are not telling you about the power line that goes to the well and the pipeline that goes to the well and the road that goes to the well, and after a while, it is not a small footprint," she says.  

A balance between mineral exploration and natural places is difficult to achieve, both sides agree. For now, the Utah parcels remain untouched pending the government's review.  

Tim DeChristopher's case is also unresolved.  The government has charged him with felonies that could get him 10 years in prison. While the prosecutor has apparently expressed an interest in a plea deal, DeChristopher says he wants to go to trial to make his own case about the environment.