In August 2006, fresh out of law school, I came to the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA). One of the first issues I began working on involved challenging oil and gas development that threatened the proposed White River wilderness. Almost five years later, we have reached an agreement with an oil and gas company that will bring some certainty—including, most importantly, some protection—to this area.
The White River runs from east to west; originating in Colorado, it eventually finds its way to the Green River, near Ouray, Utah. Midway between the Utah/Colorado border and the Green River, it has carved a particularly deep and spectacular canyon. This area is the centerpiece of the proposed White River wilderness area. It stands in stark contrast to the gently undulating hills of the Uinta Basin to the north as well as the sea of oil and gas wells that have nearly enveloped its surroundings. A government brochure describing this section of the river explains that “[t]his is one of the quiet places, where solitude and a sense of adventure are still very much a part of the outdoor experience.”
For some time the southwestern portion of the White River proposed wilderness has been the in the crosshairs of proposed natural gas development (the northern portion has too, but that is a story for another day). Between 2005 and 2007 SUWA fought back various iterations of a proposed “Rock House” project that would have resulted in a substantial loss of portions of the potential White River wilderness. At the end of 2007, the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM’s) Vernal Field Office approved the third version of the project and on the Saturday before Christmas met with the company proposing the Rock House project to approve a right of way into the proposed White River wilderness. The company acted immediately on BLM’s generous holiday spirit and bulldozed a new route deep into the proposed wilderness.
The culmination of these battles came in a showdown in federal court. In 2008, SUWA, along with a group of other environmental organizations, brought a lawsuit to stop the Rock House project. Fortunately, SUWA eked out a win, with the court agreeing that the BLM had not done its homework in approving the Rock House project (because of inadequate air quality analysis).
Unfortunately, a determined and well-financed company meant that this victory might only be short lived. Seizing on the opportunity, we negotiated an agreement with the BLM and the company to substantially reduce the footprint of the Rock House project; to protect, as best we could, the White River corridor; and to eliminate disturbance altogether in certain areas. This agreement comes at a cost—the loss of wilderness-quality lands on the southwestern portion of the proposed White River wilderness. However, the protection of thousands of acres of the proposed White River wilderness, and the fact that the company had pre-existing federal and state leases, led us to the conclusion that the deal made sense. In the end, a long-running battle has been resolved and some of the southern portion of the White River proposed wilderness has been spared.