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Activists file objection to oil exploration near Arches National Park

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Conservationist groups filed complaints Tuesday regarding a proposal that would let a geophysical company explore oil-drilling possibilities on 36 square miles of southern Utah land.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Wilderness Society and the Natural Resources Defense Council submitted their objections against seismic exploration, which they say crushes area vegetation and erodes soil, endangers formations in nearby Arches National Park and opens up the land to off-road vehicle use because of truck tracks, said Heidi McIntosh, SUWA conservation director. They also say any eventual oil drilling would threaten wildlife species like hawks and desert bighorn sheep.

"Basically, our concern is with the increasing oil and gas exploration activities in some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world," she said. "The exploration activity itself leads to all kinds of damage."

The Bureau of Land Management reviewed the WesternGeco geophysical company's proposal, and submitted an environmental assessment to the public in mid-December for a comment period, which closed Tuesday. Pending approval, WesternGeco will study the area's potential for oil and natural-gas drilling with its vibroseis trucks, said Bill Stringer, BLM assistant field manager. The trucks would send waves into the Yellow Cat area, an old uranium mining district on the north side of the Colorado River, and then create a picture of the rock structure and type to see if oil deposits are likely there or not.

Stringer said though the study area is large, the maximum disturbance the trucks will create on the trip to the site is over a 50-acre area, some of which may be already established roads. Also, there is no possibility the exploration will damage any arches, Stringer said. The nearest arch is 300 feet away and Arches National Park's nearest boundary is four miles from the site.

"We're not right on their doorstep by any means," he said.

The conservation groups said a similar exploration project conducted a few months ago near Canyonlands National Park in the Big Flat area ruined some of the land. But Stringer said that project was on a much bigger scale.

Stringer said once BLM goes through the 200 or so comments received, a decision will be made either later this week or early next week. McIntosh said the BLM "fast tracks" projects like these and that the groups are seriously considering legal action depending on the decision issued.

"This is a critical point in the decision-making process," said Liz Thomas, SUWA staff attorney. "They present it like it's a done deal and we're saying, 'no, it's not.' "

E-MAIL: lwhite@desnews.com