Ken Salazar made his first big move as interior secretary on Wednesday, acting to cancel the Bush administration’s last-minute sale of 77 oil and gas leases near Arches and Canyonlands National Parks in Utah. This is really good news, because the areas that were slated to be drilled contained some of the most pristine wilderness that’s still open to oil and gas development. It’s also somewhat surprising news, because once federal oil and gas leases get sold, they’re usually nearly impossible to take back. But these leases had been so sold so recently (on December 19, at a dramatic public auction that an activist disrupted by bidding on parcels he had no intention of paying for) that the contracts were never finalized. So the companies that bought the leases will get their money back, and the disputed tracts will, for now, remain undeveloped.
Unfortunately, there’s an underlying problem that still needs fixing. In offering the leases for sale in December, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was simply acting in accordance with the new resource-management plans for its lands in Utah. These plans, which the Bush administration rushed to complete before the end of last October, leave about 80 percent of the BLM’s 11 million acres in Utah open to energy development. If the BLM continues to manage its Utah lands according to these guidelines, which are supposed to last for 20 years, then this week’s environmental victory will only be a temporary one. Conservation groups are challenging the management plans in court, and their lawsuits may well be successful. But the Obama administration needs to start drafting replacement plans that take into consideration the sensitive nature of Utah’s red-rock country by putting more of it off-limits to drilling.