Wyatt admits the trucks damage fragile soils, but says "the area of disturbance represents a very small part of the project area - less than 1 percent. So we found this to be an impact that was not significant."

SUWA and several other groups thought otherwise. They asked for a stay on the Dome Plateau project from the Interior Board of Land Appeals (IBLA), presenting photos of the trucks working in wet soils, and close-up shots of deep tire ruts.

On Feb. 22, the IBLA shut down the one-week-old project, raising concerns that the BLM had not analyzed a full range of alternative actions, ignored the comments of sister agencies, and may have acted in an "arbitrary and capricious" manner. The BLM and the company said the delay would cost Western GeCo upwards of $40,000 a day while crews waited on stand-by, but the IBLA's director of appeals Robert More wrote: "A delay of four to seven months and the attendant costs pale by comparison to resource harms lasting decades or even centuries."

Making waves

The IBLA stay immediately raised the public scrutiny of seismic projects, and stepped up the level of caution within BLM. The Vernal, Utah, BLM field office has a seismic project under review, and though it won't involve vibroseis vehicles, citizens are already calling the field office to voice objections.

The agency is also reviewing a 19-square-mile thumper truck project for the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in southwestern Colorado, created by President Clinton in 2000.

"We want to learn from the vulnerabilities that were identified with the (Dome Plateau) environmental assessment, and demonstrate to the public that we fully considered the range of the alternatives out here," says Helen Mary Johnson of the BLM's Durango field office, who recently released a draft environmental assessment of the canyons project for public comment.

All told, there are at least half a dozen seismic projects of various sizes proposed on BLM land in the next several months, adding to what activists say has been several years of acceleration of seismic exploration projects. In the Green River Basin of southwestern Wyoming, at least eight projects were carried out last fall alone, says Dan Heilig, executive director for the Wyoming Outdoor Council.

"That's more than the previous decade," he says, "and we're talking about big projects - 200, even 300 square miles."

Heilig says that while the increases in exploration and drilling may be driven by market forces, the pressure on BLM field offices from the top is leaving less and less time for discussion and analysis.

"What we're seeing are subtle shifts in the way permits are handled, and a limiting of public involvement whenever possible," says Heilig. "Thumper trucks aren't the worst (impact) we see, but they are a step in that process that leads to more development."

Stalking the elusive energy policy

For almost a year, the Bush administration has made clear in agency memos and promises to the American public that increasing energy development on public lands is a top priority. In March, the BLM came forward with an outline for how it plans to accomplish this goal. At a two-day summit in Denver, agency officials outlined a 43-part task list that includes efforts to speed up the permitting process for leases and drilling permits and to "streamline" environmental review. The agency is also revising land-use plans, which may alter various seasonal protections for wildlife, and open up new areas to exploration. And the BLM may reduce the royalties companies pay to drill on public land.

The plan received qualified praise from industry representatives. "This is a good first step, but it's very general," says Ken Leonard, senior manager for the American Petroleum Institute. "What we need now is for the BLM to move toward a permitting process that is not designed to delay but rather to decide."

Citizen and environmental groups in attendance were skeptical.

"BLM simply does not have the manpower to properly go out and do environmental assessments and studies on the effects of this drilling," said Jim Baca, who headed the BLM for two years during the Clinton administration. "They have about the same amount of people today as they did 10 years ago, their budgets have been continually cut, and so they don't really have the expertise in place to make good decisions."

The BLM puts aside such criticism. "There's a tendency for folks to equate an effort to speed up time frames with less public involvement and less environmental protection. But that's not necessarily the case," says Pete Culp, the BLM's assistant secretary for minerals and resource protection. "We're trying to show that it isn't really a matter of streamlining, it's about cooperation and communication."

But if the Dome Plateau project is any indication, it remains to be seen whether the BLM has the legal room to maneuver between executive direction and environmental law. And the test for whether cooperation and communication will apply in this case is coming soon. The Interior Department has directed the IBLA to fast-track its review of SUWA's Dome Plateau appeal. A decision is expected by August.

 

Adam Burke is producer of Radio High Country News.

Check out our Web site for continuing radio coverage of energy issues in the West (www.hcn.org).

YOU CAN CONTACT ...

  • Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance staff attorney Liz Thomas, 435/259-5440, www.suwa.org/index.php;
  • Western GeCo, Denver, 303/629-9250, www.westerngeco.com;
  • BLM Moab, Utah, field office, Maggie Wyatt, 435/259-2100;
  • BLM public affairs specialist Ann Bond, 970/385-1219;
  • San Juan Public Lands Center, www.co.blm.gov/sjra/index.html.

Copies of the environmental assessment can be seen at www.co.blm.gov/canm/index.html. Written comments can be made through May 31 and should be addressed to Manager, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, c/o Anasazi Heritage Center, 27501 Hwy. 184, Dolores, CO 81323, or e-mailed to Colorado_CANM@co.blm.gov.