Groups seek to block drilling in Utah forests

By Jennifer Dobner
Salt Lake City, Utah (AP) June 2010

Conservation groups are asking a judge to block oil and gas drilling around trout streams and in roadless forests of northern Utah.

The groups are challenging lease sales held in 2004 and 2005. They contend a multiyear effort to resolve their complaints failed to produce a settlement with federal agencies. The leases cover 140,000 acres of public land, including 90,000 acres designated as roadless.

The Utah Rivers Council, Utah Environmental Congress and Save Our Canyons filed the lawsuit during June in Salt Lake City’s U.S. District Court.

Drilling has not yet occurred in the mountains, valleys or streams near Strawberry Reservoir in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest.

But opponents contend it could threaten native plants, blue-ribbon trout streams and habitats for animals including deer, elk, mountain goats, the northern three-toed woodpecker, western grebes, Great Basin spadefoot toads, the Sonoran mountain king snake, the rare aquatic snail known as the glossy valvata, and other animals and fish, some of which are federally recognized sensitive species.

The region is widely used for recreation and contains a variety of archaeological and historic resources, including American Indian sites, pioneer-era homesteads and other sites of historic significance.

“The action allows the total alteration of the natural character of the leased area and authorizes an industrial use of the forest that will result in considerable harms such as air pollution, noise, soil erosion, stream sedimentation, habitat destruction, harassment of wildlife, damage to historic sites and a complete transformation of the visual landscape,” the lawsuit contends.

Named as defendants in the lawsuit are the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Erin O’Connor said the agency has received the lawsuit and is reviewing it.

In court papers, conservationists argue the BLM ignored an environmental impact study from 1997 and a forest service management plan developed in 2003, which detailed possible environmental threats.

“What we’re asking is that the leases be reversed until the government can issue them with adequate environmental protections,” said Charles Dubuc, an attorney representing the conservation groups said.

Dubuc said conservation groups objected to the leases at the time they were being sold but held off on a lawsuit while the nonprofit group Trout Unlimited worked to resolve concerns with forest service and BLM officials. Those negotiations fell flat last year, Dubuc said.

The case has been assigned to the district court’s chief judge, Tena Campbell, but no hearings have been scheduled.