Robert Redford vs. George Bush on Preservation vs. Drilling

Should federal land near natural treasures in Utah be auctioned off for oil and gas exploration? That's the essence of a dispute over an auction of lease rights announced by the Bush Administration and set to take place Friday.

The leases cover 110,000 acres in various plots near some of the most beautiful national parks, monuments and historic native art sites, including Arches National Park, critics contend.

Proponents of more exploration and drilling argue that it is essential to lessen the nation's dependence on foreign oil.

Yesterday, a coalition filed suit to block the sales, which they see as a sneaky 11th-hour move by the White House. Robert Redford has weighed in too, calling President Bush "morally criminal." Many people were not exactly thrilled to hear the actor's views.

The coalition includes: the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Earthjustice, Grand Canyon Trust, Sierra Club, Wilderness Society, National Parks Conservation Association, and National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The issue

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"Development of these leases will degrade air quality at Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park and Dinosaur National Monument," the group states in its complaint filed in federal court in the District of Columbia. "It will lead to construction of well pads, pipelines and roads in some of Utah's most impressive wilderness quality landscapes such as the Desolation Canyon wilderness character area ... one of the largest roadless areas in the lower forty-eight states."

The National Park Service, which normally is consulted before such an announcement, was surprised by this one, according to The Los Angeles Times.

The Utah Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is charged with running the auction; officials there have chosen not to comment. At the request of the Park Service, however, they did cut down the acreage from the original 360,000 that had been planned.

One area of particular interest is Nine Mile Canyon, a place loaded with ancient native rock art that the BLM describes as "the longest outdoor art gallery in the world."

"We included Nine Mile Canyon on the list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places because it's being damaged, perhaps permanently, by oil and gas drilling-related truck traffic near the canyon," said Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "BLM agrees that dust and chemicals from the traffic are damaging this fragile place, which makes its decision to approve even more leases — and more truck traffic — bewildering."

Sharp words

Redford, an NRDC trustee, spoke yesterday via satellite at a news conference. "These lands are part of our legacy ... not Cheney's and Bush's," Redford said.

"[They've] been trashing the environment since they came in, like it was their prerogative." He called the attempted sale "morally criminal" and said he "was shocked about how devious and sneaky" Bush has been.

At the Web site of the conservative-leaning Washington Examiner newspaper, several hundred people lashed out at Redford, with the general attitude being "who cares what an actor has to say about this."

"The USA needs oil, while we look to the best alternative fuel," one commenter wrote. "Redford is just another big mouth actor, trying to force his opinions down everyone else's throat."

Redford has been criticizing the planned auction since November, when MSNBC's Rachel Maddow asked him if he thought the Bush Administration would get away with this sale. "Bush's environmental policies have been a disaster," Redford said. "Whether it's going to work or not is going to depend on whether the public wakes up to what's really going on."

If the auction takes place, environmental activists will turn to President-elect Barack Obama for help, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. Obama's administration could not undo the sales, but it could direct an attempt to buy back the leases.

Robert Roy Britt is the Editorial Director of Imaginova. In this column, The Water Cooler, he takes a daily look at what people are talking about in the world of science and beyond.