Bush-era land plans for Utah challenged in court

SALT LAKE CITY — A set of plans for the use of federal lands across Utah are coming under attack in federal court, years after President George W. Bush’s administration rewrote them.

The plans designated new areas for oil and gas drilling, and motivated a college student to sabotage a federal lease auction of drilling parcels around Canyonlands and Arches national parks in southern Utah.

Separately, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance overturned the lease sale of 77 drilling parcels from the December 2008 auction.

Now, the wilderness group is challenging the legitimacy of the Bush administration’s land-use plans — specifically the dirt roads and trails they left open to motorized travel. A court hearing Tuesday focused on one of the plans, for a wide area of central Utah that includes the San Rafael Swell.

Lawyers for SUWA and Earthjustice argued that the former administration ignored the damage vehicles can do to open land, streams, wildlife and endangered species.

Their case asserts the government also failed to consider climate change, which they say has brought a long-lasting drought across the Southwest.

“This area is getting hotter and drier, and we can expect more changes on the ground as a result,” Robin Cooley of Earthjustice said in a hearing covered by the Deseret News.

Federal lawyers said the government shut down the motorized cross-country “free-for-all” and closed or limited travel on 893 miles of dirt roads or trails across parts of central Utah, the newspaper said.

“It was a methodic, painstaking and difficult effort to strictly adhere to the BLM mandate of multiple use,” said Michael Thorp, representing the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Steve Bloch, of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, argued that the BLM didn’t go far enough in closing dirt roads and trails, and kept 4,200 miles open to motorized travel.

SUWA’s case began with objections to a push in the final months of the Bush administration to open federal lands for drilling near Utah’s national parks.

Separately, Tim DeChristopher attended a protest outside the 2008 BLM auction in Salt Lake City. When he ducked indoors, he said he was asked by desk clerks if he was there to sign up for the auction.

DeChristopher grabbed a bidder’s paddle and ran up prices for oilmen. Before he was ejected, he had won 22 drilling parcels for $1.8 million — money he couldn’t pay. Officials shut down the tainted auction and offered bidders their money back.

DeChristopher just finished serving 21 months in federal prison on charges of disrupting a federal auction. He plans to attend Harvard Divinity Sc


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