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Alliance hopes to delay gas well

Wait for EIS on White River, wilds backers say

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Texacoma hopes to discover natural gas in the White River area of eastern Utah. But in doing so, it has drilled into a hot bed of opposition from wilderness advocates.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance on Monday appealed a decision by the Vernal office of the Bureau of Land Management to allow Texacoma to drill a well in an area identified by BLM as potential wilderness.

SUWA is asking BLM director Sally Wisely to delay any drilling until a full-blown environmental impact statement is completed by the Vernal office and a second phase of the BLM's wilderness reinventory process is complete.

"This could set a precedent for future impacts in BLM wilderness areas," said Herb McHarg, a field representative for SUWA in Moab. "White River, in particular, is an important area because it has been the political target of anti-wilderness groups."

Last summer, Uintah County officials bulldozed four miles into the White River area. It is also the spot of a rally organized by People for the USA. During that rally, Utah Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, drove into an area closed to vehicle traffic.

White River, a 15,800-acre area about 30 miles southeast of Vernal, was included in a reinventory of wilderness lands BLM conducted last year.

BLM officials say Texacoma has an existing lease issued in 1997 that predates the reinventory.

"We recognized the public response and concerns as we went through the environmental assessment," said Howard Cleavinger, the BLM assistant field manager for minerals. He and his staff prepared the environmental review that concluded drilling a single well wouldn't have a significant impact to the environment.

But McHarg disagrees.

"It means there will be a road constructed and gas drilled within a wilderness unit," he said. The road would access the so-called Rockhouse well site where Texacoma plans to drill for gas and install a pipeline.

In addition to the environmental destruction caused by drilling, the road would scar at least one mile of wilderness within the unit, McHarg said. It also would destroy 500 juniper trees, causing increased erosion to the White River, which also is proposed for wild and scenic river designation, he added.

"Just the action itself has significant impacts," McHarg said.

SUWA spokesman Mike Reburg said this is the first time development is being proposed since BLM did its reinventory of wilderness lands.

That has wilderness advocates puzzled.

"It is unconscionable for the BLM to identify wilderness, then allow its destruction," McHarg said. "The ball is now in Sally Wisely's court as to decide whether or not she's going to protect wilderness lands identified by the agency or open it up to development."

E-mail: donna@desnews.com