DENVER — The Bureau of Land Management on Tuesday backed off from plans to auction more than a dozen leases to explore for oil and gas on the doorstep of several national parks, deflecting accusations by environmental groups that it was handing a "parting gift" to the energy industry before the Obama administration takes over.
The agency still will proceed with more than 100 lease sales at a Dec. 19 auction. BLM officials did not return calls for comment Tuesday night, but they released a statement with the National Park Service after a Monday meeting, saying the two agencies had come to an agreement on protecting the environment.
"This constructive dialogue between our agencies has resulted in a positive outcome," Selma Sierra, the BLM director in Utah, said in the statement. "This is important for two sister agencies with environmental stewardship missions."
It was unclear Tuesday night precisely how many sales were being deferred -- environmentalists counted 34, and the BLM's statement identified at least 18. But environmental groups said that was not enough. They noted that the Park Service had identified 93 of the leases as problematic.
"Putting oil and gas exploration and industrial zones in the Southwest causes irreparable damage," said David Nimkin of the National Park Conservation Assn. "It's like burning Rembrandts to heat the castle. I'm not sure we're that desperate."
About 360,000 acres of available lease sales in Utah were quietly announced on election day, including leases near Arches and Canyonlands national parks and Dinosaur National Monument. The BLM bypassed the National Park Service, which normally is allowed to weigh in on leases near parks.
The disclosure of the auction several days later sparked complaints that the Bush administration was trying to rush the leases before leaving office. The co-chair of President-elect Barack Obama's transition team, John Podesta, said the new administration may try to reverse the sales.
Mary Wilson, a BLM spokeswoman, said early Tuesday that the agency had erred by initially leaving the Park Service out of the loop. But she defended the process, noting that the agency conducts auctions every four months and has sought to auction some of the parcels for as long as five years.
"We're doing what we're mandated to do," she said.
The BLM said it waited to offer the leases until it finalized new management plans for more than 11 million acres of land in Utah last month. Wilson said the new plan has environmental protections in it, but critics of the BLM said it opens pristine land to exploration and is the legacy of an administration obsessed with drilling.
"This is the cementing of the Bush administration legacy in Utah," said Stephen Bloch, an attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
He noted that leases will still be sold in "wilderness-quality" areas such as Nine Mile Canyon, an area with many Native American artifacts. "That's their parting gift to the industry and the American public to conduct this at the last minute."