Press Releases Archives


  • Copyright Ray Bloxham/SUWA
    August 14th, 2015

    A draft Bureau of Land Management plan released today could guide energy development away from sensitive lands near Canyonlands and Arches National Parks and many outstanding proposed wilderness areas that are too wild to drill, though places like Labyrinth Canyon and Indian Creek could still be threatened.

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  • June 2nd, 2015

    EPA Allowed by Court to Turn Back on Dangerous Smog Levels, Giving Fracking Industry Free Rein to Pollute

    For Immediate Release: June 2, 2015

    Washington, D.C. – A federal court ruling today denied clean air for Utah’s Uinta Basin, allowing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to sacrifice public health for the oil and gas industry.

    “Instead of requiring the EPA to adhere to its mission of protecting public health, the court has allowed the agency to evade their responsibility through essentially a trivial technicality,” said Dr. Brian Moench of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. “The Uinta Basin already has documented abnormal spikes in infant deaths. While this ruling is a disappointment to us, it is a serious setback to protecting the thousands of Basin residents, including children and pregnant mothers, from some of the worst air pollution in the nation.”

    Utah’s Uinta Basin has for several years now been experiencing dangerously high levels of ground-level ozone, the key ingredient of smog. Ozone pollution in the Uinta Basin rivals that found in Los Angeles and Houston. Ozone levels well-above federal health standards have been recorded throughout the region.

    Studies have confirmed that oil and gas development is a key culprit for the region’s unhealthy air. More than 11,000 oil and gas wells have been drilled in the region. A recent study published in the journal, Environmental Science and Technology, reported that total ozone forming pollution from oil and gas operations in the region equals the amount released by 100 million passenger vehicles.

    “Out of control fracking is taking a terrible toll on clean air in Utah,” said Jeremy Nichols, Climate and Energy Program Director for WildEarth Guardians. “Sadly, today’s court ruling lets the oil and gas industry continue to put its profits before public health.”

    In spite of monitoring data showing the Uinta Basin is violating federal health limits for ozone, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2012 declined to order a clean up. Instead, the agency declared that air quality in the region was “unclassifiable,” meaning that the Clean Air Act’s mandatory requirements for improving air quality would not apply in the Uinta Basin.

    In 2013, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, WildEarth Guardians, and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance filed suit to compel the Environmental Protection Agency to declare the Uinta Basin’s air quality to be unhealthy and take steps to restore clean air. Represented by Earthjustice, the groups called on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to overturn the Environmental Protection Agency’s unclassifiable designation.

    In a ruling today, the court rejected the suit, upholding the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision.

    “Today’s ruling is unfortunate news for the people living and working in the Uinta Basin who must continue to breathe unhealthy air,” said Robin Cooley, attorney for Earthjustice who argued the case. “The Environmental Protection Agency knows the air is unhealthy, and we will continue to hold their feet to the fire until they take the steps necessary to protect public health. Given the rampant oil and gas development in the Uinta Basin, there is no time to waste.”

    The court’s ruling comes even as monitoring continues to confirm the Uinta Basin’s sickening smog levels. In early 2014, public health and environmental groups again called on the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up the region’s smog.

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    For More Information Contact:

    Dr. Brian Moench, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, (801) 243-9089, drmoench@yahoo.com

    Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians, (303) 437-7663, jnichols@wildearthguardians.org

    David Garbett, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, (801) 428-3992, david@suwa.org

    Robin Cooley, Earthjustice, (303) 263-2472, rcooley@earthjustice.org

     

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  • Dirty Devil proposed wilderness, copyright Ray Bloxham/SUWA.
    May 26th, 2015

    BLM plan designated thousands of miles of ORV routes, placing iconic western landscapes at risk

    SALT LAKE CITY–On Friday, May 22, the United States District Court for the District of Utah issued a long awaited ruling regarding the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM’s) Resource Management Plan and Off-Road Vehicle Travel Management Plan for the Richfield field office, specifically directing the agency to complete comprehensive cultural surveys and additional analyses over the next 1-3 years. This “remedy decision” book-ended a November 2013 decision which held that BLM’s plans violated several substantive laws, though the court deferred deciding what steps were needed to fix the plans until a second round of briefing on the appropriate remedy was completed.

    Under the Richfield RMP and ORV Travel Plan, which covers lands between Capitol Reef and Canyonlands National Parks, BLM designated over 4,200 miles of dirt roads and trails – enough miles to drive from Los Angeles to New York City and part way back – for ORV use. The BLM did so despite evidence of environmental damage to Utah’s unique redrock landscapes, damage to irreplaceable cultural resources, and conflicts with other public lands visitors.

    A coalition of conservation groups led by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) and Earthjustice challenged the Richfield plans in an attempt to stem the ORV damage to Utah’s spectacular public lands. These plans threaten world-renowned southern Utah wilderness landscapes like the Dirty Devil Canyon complex (including Butch Cassidy’s infamous hideout, Robber’s Roost), the Henry Mountains (the last mountain range to be mapped in the lower 48 states) and Factory Butte.  See photos here.

    The court’s decision also raises serious questions about the legality of five other BLM management plans in the eastern half of Utah that suffer from similar legal flaws. The Richfield RMP is just one of six land use plans—covering more than 11 million acres of eastern and southern Utah—that the Interior Department finalized before the Bush administration left office in 2008. Each of the six plans is wildly unbalanced in favor of off-road vehicle use and energy development and threaten Utah’s renowned redrock country. The Obama administration has unfortunately continued to defend these plans, both in court and in practice. Conservationists have challenged all six plans in court.  The Richfield RMP is the first of the six to be litigated.

    “These important decisions flatly reject Utah BLM’s ‘designate trails first, think later’ approach to off-road vehicle management,” said Stephen Bloch, Legal Director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “By setting forth strict timelines for BLM to undertake long overdue inventories for cultural sites and prepare necessary environmental analyses, the court has sent a clear message that the status quo is not acceptable. Utah’s remarkable redrock landscapes demand better.”

    “BLM has been ignoring its mandate to minimize environmental harm from ORV abuse since the Nixon administration, when the ORV rules took effect,” said Heidi McIntosh, Managing Attorney of Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountain Office. “The court’s strict deadline is a wake up call that will finally force BLM to do its job and protect this magnificent expanse of scenic redrock country.”

    “This decision reinforces the court’s previous ruling that BLM must take protection of natural and cultural resources seriously,” said Nada Culver, Senior Counsel for The Wilderness Society. “The BLM should stop seeking to avoid its responsibilities and move forward with addressing the serious flaws in these 6 plans, fulfilling its obligations as steward of these 11 million acres of public lands and committing to meaningful conservation.”

    “BLM’s refusal to conduct on-the-ground inventories for cultural resources that are being damaged and destroyed from off-road vehicle use was shocking,” said Bill Hedden, Executive Director of the Grand Canyon Trust.  Federal law requires BLM to do more to protect these irreplaceable cultural treasures and we’re pleased that the judge ordered BLM to do so.”

    Specifically, Judge Kimball:

    Directed BLM to prepare new analyses over the next 1-3 years documenting that the agency’s off-road vehicle designations minimize impacts to a number of specific resources, including wildlife, non-motorized recreation, and riparian areas.

    • Directed BLM to prepare new analyses over the next 1-3 years documenting that the agency’s off-road vehicle designations minimize impacts to a number of specific resources, including wildlife, non-motorized recreation, and riparian areas.
    • Directed BLM to complete intensive, on-the-ground surveys for historic and cultural resources over the next 1-3 years for all designated routes.
      • The Court agreed with SUWA that BLM should begin its work with all routes in the area between Capitol Reef National Park, the Henry Mountains and the Green River. This work must be completed within one year of the Court’s May 22, 2015 order.
    • Directed BLM to provide SUWA with copies of the agency’s annual ORV monitoring reports, documentation BLM has largely failed to prepare since it completed the Richfield plan in 2008. BLM is required to provide SUWA with these reports over the three-year remedial period.
    • Directed BLM to issue a new decision within six months on whether to designate the Henry Mountains as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern—which would give heightened protection to its bison herds and large expanses of remote, spectacularly scenic lands.
    • Directed BLM to issue a new decision within the next year on whether Happy Canyon and portions of Buck and Pasture Canyons are eligible for protection under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

    Further Background:

    Background information on the Richfield RMP can be found on SUWA’s website.  Photographs of the proposed wilderness areas at risk in the Richfield field office are also available. In 2008, the Salt Lake Tribune and New York Times panned the Richfield RMP, raising many of the same flaws identified in the court’s decisions.

    The conservation groups challenging the BLM’s 2008 land use plans in Utah include the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Sierra Club, Grand Canyon Trust, National Parks Conservation Association, The Wilderness Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Utah Rivers Council, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, National Trust for Historic Preservation and Rocky Mountain Wild.

    The groups are represented by attorneys Heidi McIntosh and Robin Cooley of Earthjustice, Stephen Bloch and David Garbett of SUWA, and by Robert Wiygul of Waltzer, Wiygul and Garside. Attorneys Nada Culver and Alison Flint of The Wilderness Society were also a part of the groups’ legal team.

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  • March 26th, 2015

    Records Show Fish and Wildlife Service Conceded to Habitat Destruction Demanded by Industry Under the Guise of “Conservation”

    Graham's Penstemon (Susan Meyer)

    Graham’s Penstemon (Susan Meyer)

    DENVER— Conservation groups filed a lawsuit today in federal court in Denver challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to deny Endangered Species Act protection to two imperiled wildflowers that live only on oil shale formations in Colorado and Utah. Oil shale and tar sands mining and traditional oil and gas drilling threaten 100 percent of known White River beardtongue populations and over 85 percent of the known Graham’s beardtongue populations.

    In August 2013, the Service proposed to provide Endangered Species Act protection to the wildflowers and nearly 76,000 acres of their essential habitat, recognizing the threat posed by mining and drilling. One year later—after lobbying by industry and its supporters, including the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) and Uintah County—the Service reversed-course and denied Endangered Species Act protections. The Service based its decision on a 15-year “conservation agreement” negotiated behind closed doors with pro-industry stakeholders.

    Public records obtained by plaintiffs in today’s lawsuit show that the conservation agreement purposefully excluded wildflower habitat from protection to accommodate oil shale mining and drilling. SITLA’s Associate Director and Chief Legal Counsel, John Andrews, described the agreement as follows:

    “The basic concept is you’ve got a 15-year agreement that’s going to buy for all of our miners the ability to strip mine and destroy any [wildflowers] that are located on those sites in exchange for some conservation” on lands “that wouldn’t be disturbed” anyway.[1]

    In its proposal to list the species, the Service recognized oil shale mining in the wildflowers’ habitat as one of the primary threats justifying the need for Endangered Species Act protections. FWS found that that development of just two planned oil shale projects in Utah by the Enefit and Red Leaf corporations would have substantial impacts and would reduce the viability of the species. But the conservation agreement denies protections on private and state lands slated for oil shale development during the 15-year term of the agreement, including those owned or leased by Enefit and Red Leaf.

    “The conservation agreement is a giveaway to the fossil fuel industry,” said Robin Cooley, an Earthjustice attorney representing the conservation groups. “Although the Fish and Wildlife Service previously identified habitat that was essential to the survival of these wildflowers, the agency rolled over during negotiations and sacrificed more than 40% of this essential habitat, including lands the oil shale industry plans to strip mine in the next 15 years.”

    “The Endangered Species Act requires the Service to make decisions based on science, not politics,” said Megan Mueller, senior biologist with Rocky Mountain Wild. “The science here is clear, these wildflowers must be protected from strip mining and drilling.”

    “The Endangered Species Act has an incredible record of saving species—but it can only work if we use it. We’ve known for decades that these wildflowers need federal protections if they’re going to survive,” said Michael Saul, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s shameful to see the Fish and Wildlife Service forego that effective tool just for the profits of one industry.”

    “These rare and beautiful wildflowers are a treasured part of our natural heritage and we need to protect them for future generations to enjoy,” said Tony Frates with the Utah Native Plant Society. “Rather than ensuring their survival through the proven protections of the Endangered Species Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service opted for a conservation agreement that paves the way for destruction of large populations of these two species.”

    Earthjustice filed today’s lawsuit challenging the Service’s failure to list the beardtongues under the Endangered Species Act on behalf of Rocky Mountain Wild, Center for Biological Diversity, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Utah Native Plant Society, Grand Canyon Trust, Western Resource Advocates, and Western Watersheds Project.

    _______________

    [1] An audio recording of Mr. Andrew’s presentation at the SITLA Board Retreat, April 16-17 (Part 3), is available through Utah’s public notice website, at http://www.utah.gov/pmn/files/archive/101711.mp3 (1:21:30–:59).

    Complaint: http://earthjustice.org/sites/default/files/files/1%20-%202015.03.26%20-%20Complaint.pdf

     

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  • December 3rd, 2014

    Dismisses Utah claims to 6 routes and concludes width of 3 other routes must be revisited

    Salt Lake City, Utah (December 3, 2014) – Yesterday, a unanimous three-judge panel of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a key decision in the State of Utah’s ongoing roads (RS 2477) litigation.

    North Swag RS 2477 Claim (vertical)

    RS 2477 “highway” in Kane County.

    The appeals court cut in half a 2013 decision by a district court judge to grant Utah and Kane County 12 so-called RS 2477 rights-of-way. The appeals court concluded that it lacked jurisdiction over 6 of the 12 routes because they were open for motorized travel pursuant to federal land use plans. The court also reversed the district court’s “scope” (width) determinations regarding 3 other routes located in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and remanded for further proceedings.

    “This decision is a significant set-back for the State of Utah’s effort to wrest control of more than 14,000 claimed ‘highways’ across federally managed lands in the state,” said Stephen Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “After more than 10 years of litigation and millions of taxpayer dollars, Utah has little to show for its efforts. Of the 17 claimed RS 2477 rights-of-way litigated in two separate cases all the way to the Tenth Circuit, the State has established title to only 6 routes, leaving 13,983 routes to go.”

    The appeals court also rejected an argument advanced by conservation groups that the State’s RS 2477 claim in the Paria-Hackberry wilderness study area was filed too late and after the relevant 12-year statute of limitations had run.

    After being denied intervention in these proceedings, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and The Wilderness Society participated as amicus curiae before both the district court and court of appeals. The Sierra Club, Grand Canyon Trust, and National Parks Conservation Association also participated as amicus curiae in separate filings before the appeals court.

    A copy of the decision is available here.

    Background
    Originally filed in 2008, Kane County and the State of Utah expended millions of dollars to pursue 16 claimed rights-of-way in this lawsuit. Several of the claims are located in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and one is within a BLM wilderness study area.

    This case is one of 25 filed by the State of Utah and its counties that claim title to approximately 14,000 dirt trails and roads across the state. Many of these claims are little more than stream bottoms and old mining tracks in the desert that serve no practical purpose whatsoever. The State is relying on a provision in the Mining Act of 1866 to try and establish its claimed rights-of-way.

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