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Tussle Over a Western 'Jewel'

June 24, 2003|Elizabeth Shogren | Times Staff Writer

MOAB, Utah — Monumental red rock walls rise from a canyon rich with ancient juniper trees, tiny pinyon pines and blooming prickly pear cactuses.

Craggy and sometimes whimsical formations -- including one in the distinct shape of a Jeep -- emerge from the sandstone. In the vast space, only the song of a canyon wren breaks the silence.

The rugged landscape of Goldbar has not been designated wilderness by Congress. But it is among the parcels totaling 2.6 million acres in southern Utah identified in 1999 as candidates for the designation, which protects land from development. Until Congress could consider the matter, the Bureau of Land Management barred vehicle traffic and blocked oil drilling.

Then, in April, Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton put an end to that. To settle a lawsuit brought by the state of Utah, she ordered no more special treatment for those 2.6 million acres. And she directed land managers in all Western states to stop protecting additional parcels of BLM land unless Congress formally declared them wilderness. Goldbar is included in a pending wilderness bill supported by about 150 Republicans and Democrats in the House. But the bill has been blocked because it does not have the support of the Utah delegation, which opposes designating large areas of the state as wilderness.

Battles over such federal lands have raged in the West for decades, but now the parties arguing for less restrictive use have been getting a more sympathetic hearing from the administration.

The Interior Department's about-face was a major victory for rural politicians, oil company executives and others in Utah and elsewhere who want these areas open to resource development and all-terrain vehicles. The decision parallels other administration actions that would remove obstacles to extracting resources -- from Alaska oil to West Virginia coal -- from federal and private land.

Goldbar's unspoiled beauty and its potential for producing oil help explain the passions fueling the dispute. Oil companies want to tap into its reserves. Local governments want the money that would bring.

Although Goldbar lies between two popular national parks -- Arches and Canyonlands -- and is just a couple of miles west of the recreation hub of Moab, hikers can go hours without seeing another person. Through long stretches of slick rock, desert shrubs and huge sandstone boulders, the only signs of previous visitors are cairns (piles of rocks to guide hikers) and occasional tracks from mountain bikes or bighorn sheep.

In a book describing lands with wilderness qualities, the BLM extolled Goldbar's "outstanding opportunities for solitude," one of Congress' main requirements for wilderness. It also found that much of the area remained "natural," with the imprint of humans largely unnoticeable, another main qualification.

Goldbar's sandstone arches, rock-art panels left by aboriginal inhabitants, maze of twisting canyons and spectacular views of the snow-capped La Sal mountains and Arches National Park all support the case for preserving it, environmentalists say.

Even before April's change in policy, however, hikers were not the only ones with access. A dirt road cutting into the heart of Goldbar leads to one of southern Utah's longest-producing oil wells, Long Canyon No. 1.

Liz Thomas, a local environmentalist, said she wished it could remain the only oil well in Goldbar. "There are plenty of places outside of [proposed] wilderness to drill," said Thomas, a lawyer who represents the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance in Moab. When the BLM permits companies to develop, she said, it forfeits the land's intrinsic value as wilderness without any guarantee of a return. "The oil companies may or may not hit something. But the damage they do will live on and on."

Oil firms said southern Utah's oil fields play only a minor role in overall domestic production. But for Grand County, it's money in the bank. Long Canyon No. 1 has produced millions of dollars in county tax revenue over the last three decades.

Jerry McNeely, a member of the Grand County Council, envisioned more wells pumping to fill the county's treasury. Goldbar overlaps an area known to contain several million barrels of oil.

Modern techniques, McNeely said, enable oil companies to explore for oil and produce it without significantly hurting the scenery. Small oil wells are painted to blend with the scenery; horizontal drilling allows drill pads to be established away from the most scenic spots. "I would prefer not to have any wilderness areas," he said. Preserving them, he added, "just stops progress."

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