Wilderness Groups Fight White River Drilling Plan

Wilderness Groups Fight White River Drilling Plan

Environmentalists and outfitters are asking the Bureau of Land Management to shelve a proposed gas drilling project near the White River in eastern Utah.

A Denver-based firm, Enduring Resources, has proposed drilling more than 50 natural gas wells on federal and state land just south of the river, an area that the BLM identified in 1999 as having wilderness characteristics.

Foes of the project claim that such intensive activity so close to the river would spoil what is now a largely pristine area. And they point to more than 30,000 public comments objecting to the company’s proposal as evidence of broad-based opposition.

“It’s a bad project,” said Steve Bloch, an attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “And it’s bad because it’s in such a sensitive location and because the BLM’s own literature touts how quiet this place is and how it offers unique opportunities for river recreation and hiking. Quite frankly, you don’t find places like this anymore in southeastern Utah.”

SUWA and the Outdoor Industry Association — which represents outfitters and retailers — have asked the BLM, which is currently in the midst of an environmental assessment of the project, to do a full- blown environmental impact study (EIS).

“Ultimately, this project may be the one that breaks the camel’s back — altering the river experience to such a degree that wilderness characteristics would be eliminated,” Amy Roberts, spokeswoman for the Outdoor Industry Association, said in a statement.

The BLM’s environmental assessment of the project is scheduled to be finished by February. Mary Wilson, spokeswoman for the agency’s Utah office, says public opposition will be taken into account, but so will other factors.

“This is not a voting process,” said Wilson. “We’re trying to determine if there will be a level of impact that would warrant an EIS.

Wilson says the company has laid out a variety of proposals to lessen the environmental impacts of the drilling project, including directional drilling — which would reduce the number of well pads — as well as time and travel restrictions.

“It wouldn’t be as if nothing was there, but the proponent is working very hard to mitigate or minimize impacts,” she said.

Bloch says that one of the contradictions of the project is that the larger White River area has been surveyed by the BLM for possible Wild and Scenic Rivers designation. Such a possibility, he says, would be scuttled if the drilling project goes through.

Bloch says he is hopeful the BLM will eventually pull back on the proposal, noting that the agency has already done so with six other planned wells in the project and has granted delays on other energy development proposals in the Uinta Basin.

Despite popular perception, Bloch says SUWA has legally challenged only a handful of Utah drilling projects in the past six years, roughly less than half of 1 percent during that time period. But he adds that his organization is willing to litigate the White River proposal.

“This is one of those projects where you have to draw a line in the sand,” he said.

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