DENVER – Environmental groups filed a lawsuit Wednesday as a last-ditch effort to block the sale of leases for 110,000 acres of federal land in Utah that George W. Bush’s administration plans to auction off Friday.
Critics say the proposed lease sales are an 11th hour attempt by the administration to leave its mark on the striking, energy-rich red rock landscape of southern and eastern Utah.
The auction was announced late on Election Day.
The National Park Service, which is routinely consulted before such announcements, was taken by surprise. The park service later objected to dozens of the sales, but the Bureau of Land Management moved ahead with plans to sell the majority of them.
The lawsuit, filed by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the National Resource Defense Council and five other environmental groups, contends that the Bush administration failed to comply with regulations requiring it to consider the sale’s impact on air quality and other environmental factors.
“The Bush administration has rushed to get these leases out the door,” said Sharon Buccino, a senior attorney for NRDC, at a Washington, D.C., news conference.
“In their midnight madness, BLM has failed to complete the analysis required by federal law to protect America’s natural and historic treasures.”
BLM officials said they would not comment on the litigation. They have previously defended the lease sales as part of their obligation to open federal lands to energy development.
The bureau has withdrawn some proposed leases that were next to Arches National Park, on a golf course in the town of Moab or beneath the rim of Nine-Mile Canyon, which is lined with ancient Native American rock art. But environmentalists argue that the remaining leases are adjacent to these sensitive areas, other national parks or in other regions that the federal government has declared “wilderness quality.”
Actor Robert Redford, speaking by video link at the news conference, called the sales a “moral crime.” Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., who grew up in red rock country, called the auction “a final insult from an administration that has done so much to destroy our country.”
Buccino said that even if the sale goes forward Friday, companies should be on notice that the auctions may not be legally valid. There has been discussion that President-elect Barack Obama’s administration, which objects to the sale, could buy back the leases. But Buccino said taxpayer dollars should not have to be spent to undo the deals.