"Tug-O-War" Oil and Gas Lease Sites Must Past Tribal Test


Oil and gas leases have been a hot topic for a long time, especially since the controversial disruption of a BLM land sale by student activist Tim DeChristopher in Salt Lake City this past December. The sale which, according to some, was a midnight move by the Bush administration found itself floundering when an unknown bidder (DeChristopher) won parcel after parcel of land. Since December the leased parcels have been pulled back and forth between the BLM and the Interior, between developers and nature-lovers.

This story goes back before DeChristopher, back before the rushed lease sale. Yet it shows that the tug-o-war has been going on for years; and it hasn’t stopped. When the Interior Board of Land Appeals (IBLA) recently told the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that it cannot move forward with 11 oil and gas leases without following federal cultural preservation law and consulting with concerned Native American tribes, a sigh was heard coming from Nine Mile Canyon in southern Utah.

The parcels of land in question were originally sold by the BLM in 2003 and are located in the Bad Land Cliffs between the Ashley National Forest and the Desbrough Canyon – in close proximity to Nine Mile Canyon, which is renowned for its remarkable concentration of rock art sites and other cultural resources. Since that sale, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) has been fighting to keep oil and gas exploration and development away from such treasures, fearing that the leases would have negative impacts on the cultural sites.

SUWA appealed to the IBLA arguing that the BLM had failed to follow all the specific requirements of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and, in 2007, won a small victory. The IBLA ruled in favor of SUWA, acknowledging the BLM’s failure to perform all the required analysis and consultation with affected tribes and that the sale thus violated the law. The (illegal) leases were suspended as further steps were taken by the BLM to comply.

The BLM bought back the parcels of land, standing with the original claim that they were sell-able. However, SUWA disagreed and appealed again. In an April 2009 ruling, the IBLA agreed with SUWA again, claiming that the BLM had still not complied with the law.

The recent ruling requires the BLM to follow the specifications of the NHPA. Now the BLM must consult with all Native American tribes that attach religious and cultural significance to an area proposed for leasing. While the BLM consulted with several tribes concerning the leased parcels, it did not consult with either the Hopi Tribe or the Laguna Pueblo, both of which appoint significance to the cultural sites. Before the leases can move forward, these two tribes must be consulted by the BLM.

But where will this story end? Is the exploration and development of oil and gas sites more important than the land? More important than the culture? More important than the people?

Congress has made it clear with the Waxman-Markey bill that they will continue putting the interests of the fossil fuel industry ahead of my generation.                                                                                                               Tim DeChristopher

More: What else is going in Utah’s red rock regions?

Photo Credit: Shelley Kay via flickr under Creative Commons License

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