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Conservation Groups Sue to Block Drilling Plan Near National Parks

Conservation groups filed a lawsuit Wednesday to block the Bush administration's last-minute sale of oil-and-gas drilling leases in Utah on spectacular scenery near national parks and ancient rock art panels.

The Bureau of Land Management has scheduled an auction Friday to sell drilling leases covering more than 100,000 acres of wild land in eastern Utah.

Actor Robert Redford, a longtime environmental activist, called the lease sale "morally criminal." Redford, who owns a home in Utah and hosts the annual Sundance Film Festival there, said the leasing issue is emotional for him, since he has spent much of his adult life in southern Utah, on foot and horseback.

"These lands do not belong to Bush and Cheney. It's our land — public lands — and the BLM is supposed to be protecting lands on our behalf," Redford said via satellite from Los Angeles during a news conference in Washington.

President Bush "may be a lame duck," Redford added, "but he can still quack. I say: Stop it. Enough is enough."

Sharon Buccino, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the Bush administration was rushing to approve the leases before leaving office next month.

"In their midnight maneuvering, BLM failed to complete the analysis required by federal law for the protection of America's natural and cultural treasures," she said.

A spokeswoman for the BLM declined to comment.

Buccino and other speakers said the land being considered for drilling is some of the most spectacular scenery in the country, including land near Nine Mile Canyon, Dinosaur National Monument and Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.

The BLM has dropped more than half the parcels it originally proposed to lease, after the sales were criticized because of their proximity to national parks and ancient rock art panels. The National Park Service was among those that objected to the original plan.

The BLM's final list for the Friday sale includes 132 parcels totaling about 164,000 acres.

A Park Service spokesman said the final list reflects an agreement between the two agencies — both of which are part of the Interior Department.

Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., called the lease sale "an early Christmas present to the oil and gas industry from a lame duck administration with one foot already out the door. Once these pristine wilderness lands are destroyed we can never get them back."

Baird said he was not impressed that officials had scaled back the original plan to lease about 360,000 acres of public land for oil and gas development.

"It's a little bit like someone telling you they're going to rob only part of your house," Baird said. "It is a final insult from an administration that has done so much to destroy this country."

Baird said he was confident the Obama administration would reverse the sales, but he said that was not guaranteed and should not be necessary.

A spokesman for President-elect Obama declined immediate comment.

Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar, named Wednesday as Obama's choice for Interior secretary, has not spoken publicly about the Utah lease plan.

In his four years in the Senate, Salazar has been a champion for "responsible" energy production on public lands — opposing efforts by the Bush administration to develop oil shale resources in the West and to open up Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but helping to broker a deal allowing more offshore production.

Salazar has also been a vocal advocate of renewable energy, and the public lands he will oversee include some of the nation's largest sources of wind, solar and geothermal energy.

Redford, who has worked with Salazar on environmental issues, called his nomination encouraging and said Salazar has sent signals he opposes drilling on sensitive lands.

"He didn't farm oil rigs," Redford said, referring to Salazar's past as a rancher in Colorado.

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