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Agencies clash on drilling near parks

By Paul Foy
Associated Press / November 17, 2008
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SALT LAKE CITY - The view of Delicate Arch natural bridge - an unspoiled landmark that is depicted on Utah's license plates - could one day include a drilling platform under a Bush administration proposal.

Late on Election Day, the Bureau of Land Management announced a Dec. 19 auction of more than 50,000 acres of oil and gas parcels alongside or within view of Arches National Park and two other redrock national parks in Utah: Dinosaur and Canyonlands.

The National Park Service's top official in the state calls it disturbing and says his agency wasn't properly notified. Environmentalists call it a "fire sale" for the oil and gas industry by the departing administration.

Officials of the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees millions of acres of public land in the West, say the sale is nothing unusual, and one is "puzzled" that the Park Service is upset.

"We find it shocking and disturbing," said Cordell Roy, the chief Park Service administrator in Utah. "They added 51,000 acres of tracts near Arches, Dinosaur, and Canyonlands without telling us about it. That's 40 tracts within four miles of these parks."

Top aides to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne stepped into the fray, ordering the sister agencies to make amends. His press secretary, Shane Wolfe, said deputy Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett resolved the dispute within 24 hours last week.

A compromise ordered by the Interior Department requires the bureau to "take quite seriously" the Park Service's objections, Wolfe said.

However, the bureau didn't promise to pull any parcels from the sale. In an interview after the supposed truce, the bureau's state director, Selma Sierra, said she saw nothing wrong with drilling near national parks.

"I'm puzzled the Park Service has been as upset as they are," Sierra said.

"There are already many parcels leased around the parks. It's not like they've never been leased," she said. "I don't see it as something we are doing to undermine the Park Service."

Roy and conservation groups dispute that, saying never before has the bureau bunched drilling parcels on the fence lines of national parks.

"This is the fire sale, the Bush administration's last great gift to the oil and gas industry," said Stephen Bloch, a staff attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

"The tracts of land offered here, next to Arches National Park or above Desolation Canyon, these are the crown jewels of America's lands that the BLM is offering to the highest bidder," he said.

In one case drilling parcels bordering Arches National Park are just 1.3 miles from Delicate Arch, according to environmentalists who have examined the government's plan.

In all, the bureau is moving to open 359,000 more acres in Utah to drilling.

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