Wilderness up for lease


Note: in the print edition of this issue, this article appears as a sidebar to another news article, "Buying time against the energy assault."

As industry gobbles up oil and gas leases across the West, citizen-proposed wilderness areas, which encompass millions of acres of public lands, have become battlegrounds. Under a Clinton-era policy, these areas were given interim protection, but the Bush administration has stripped them of protection — and has begun leasing many of them for oil and gas development (HCN, 1/19/04: Two decades of hard work, plowed under).

A May 13 lease sale in Colorado included 29 parcels of land within the Colorado Citizens’ Wilderness Proposal, an initiative endorsed by over 300 organizations, businesses, and local governments. When members of the coalition protested, the BLM agreed to take six parcels off the auction block. But 23 parcels near Grand Junction were leased, including Cow Ridge and Hunter Canyon, where environmentalists say energy development will threaten wildlife migration routes.

In New Mexico this April, energy companies snatched up leases in citizen-proposed wilderness areas in the Carlsbad area. One of the leases is in Rawhide Canyon in the Chihuahuan Desert, which provides a buffer zone for Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

And in Wyoming, the BLM put a citizen-proposed wilderness called the Pinnacles on the block in April. The 900-acre badland in south-central Wyoming was leased for $140 an acre.

There’s more to come. On June 25, the Utah BLM will offer for lease 30,500 acres within citizen-proposed wilderness areas, including areas in Burbank Pass, Dirty Devil, Flat Tops, Sweetwater Reef, Diamond Canyon and Mexico Point. "These areas are of wilderness quality. Nevertheless, the BLM is proposing to sell them," says Steve Bloch of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "We will take it to court."

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