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Judge says BLM leases to oil firms broke law

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The U.S. Bureau of Land Management violated the law in 16 leasing parcels of Utah land for oil development, a federal judge has ruled.

The decision seems to question an agreement between the state of Utah and the Interior Department that was intended to end the setting aside of future wilderness areas on BLM land.

Despite that agreement, U.S. District Judge Dale A. Kimball slammed the BLM for failing to consider wilderness characteristics of parcels under appeal, land that is not now designated as wilderness.

If the land can't be set aside as wilderness, what would be the point of considering its wilderness value? An indication of the judge's thinking may be found in his use of wording that apparently questions the validity of the agreement itself.

In April 2003, he wrote, the state and the Interior Department "entered into a controversial agreement, which allegedly ended the Interior Department's authority to establish new wilderness study areas."

Sixteen parcels of public land that were leased in February 2005 are at the heart of the suit, filed by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Natural Resources Defense Council and The Wilderness Society.

Some parcels in the sale have — according to the BLM's own Wilderness Inventory document — "remarkable, wilderness-quality landscapes." This is one of the first times that the agency had attempted to lease such land after the agreement, he wrote.

Environmentalists contend that the BLM violated the policy act by issuing four leases in an area administered by its Richfield field office without taking a hard look at the alternative of not leasing them. Also, they said the BLM failed to consider significant new information about wilderness values on all 16 parcels.

According to the plaintiffs, the new information only became available in the late 1990s after the BLM's analysis, the ruling says.

Environmentalists also claimed the BLM failed to consult with the State Historic Preservation Officers about effects of the leases.

"To the contrary, the Utah BLM urges the court to uphold its decision to sell the leases at issue," the judge noted.

"It argues that it has not violated either NEPA or the NHPA (National Historic Preservation Act). Specifically, the Utah BLM claims that its analysis supporting the leases on the four parcels in the Richfield field office was adequate for the purposes of NEPA."

The agency fully analyzed values now labeled as having wilderness characteristics, the BLM argued. Also, it said it complied with the Historic Preservation Act.

Kimball ruled that the BLM "violated NEPA in two independent ways: (1) it sold four leases in the Richfield field office without first preparing an adequate pre-leasing document, and (2) it sold the challenged leases after arbitrarily determining that it did need to supplement existing NEPA analyses in light of the agency's own Wilderness Inventory and subsequent new information provided by Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance."

The decision to sell the four leases from the Richfield field office "was not supported by adequate pre-leasing NEPA analysis," he wrote.

The failure to consider the no-lease alternative "is fatal to the agency's leasing decision. Accordingly, BLM's decision to lease these parcels was contrary to NEPA and must be set aside."

The BLM "ignored significant new information when it decided to lease the 16 parcels at issue without first conducting a supplemental NEPA analysis," the 32-page ruling says.

Concerning nine parcels in the Moab field office area, Kimball found that the BLM "arbitrarily ignored new information (information produced by the agency itself) in an effort to approve oil and gas leasing and ultimately development of these lands."

The BLM can't know the impact of leasing and development on wilderness values if it won't make a supplemental analysis, he wrote.

Kimball said that in light of the BLM errors he cited, it wasn't necessary to consider the argument over the National Historic Preservation Act. The environmentalists won the case without the need of a ruling on that issue.

The BLM's decision denying the environmentalists' protest, and its decision to lease the 16 parcels are "reversed and remanded for further consideration consistent with the court's decision that the Utah BLM violated NEPA," he wrote.

The violations he cited were that BLM leased the four Richfield field office parcels without taking a hard look at a non-leasing alternative, and that it failed to consider significant new information about wilderness values and characteristics of all 16 parcels.

E-mail: bau@desnews.com