SALT LAKE CITY (CN) - Uintah County, Utah's biggest producer of natural gas, claims the Department of the Interior illegally closed 385,000 acres of public land to mining, in the proposed Red Rock Wilderness. The county claims the Bureau of Land Management altered the Vernal Resource Management Plan, 7 years in the making, without public comment or proper environmental analysis.
Congress proposed creating the Red Rock Wilderness through H.R. 1925 in April 2009. But Uintah County says the Resolution constitutes "an unlawful amendment to the Vernal Resource Management Plan," which was adopted in October 2008. "This land use plan, adopted in October 2008, represents the culmination of more than seven years of formal planning, public involvement, and environmental analysis on the part of Uintah County and BLM," according to the federal complaint.
The county claims the land in northeast Utah, primarily in Uintah County, was to be "managed with emphasis on oil and gas development and other extractive resource values." But the "re-inventory reviewed not only federal land but also adjacent state land, even though BLM has no legal jurisdiction or authority over the state lands," according to the complaint.
More than half of the natural gas and oil produced in Utah comes from Uintah County, home to Dinosaur National Monument. Its mineral resources include phosphate, gilsonite, oil shale, oil and natural gas.
In 2008, Uintah County received about $112.5 million in oil and gas revenue. In 2009 it received only $54.34 million.
"Uintah County relies on the revenues received from commercial uses of the public lands, including oil and gas development and livestock grazing, because so little of the land within the county is privately owned," the county says. "These revenues are necessary to fund the county government functions, because property taxes apply only to land not owned by a government entity."
About 85 percent of the land in Uintah County is owned by state, federal or tribal governments, and 47 percent of the government-owned lands are public lands managed by BLM.
This "income is vital to the local economy," the BLM acknowledged in the Vernal Resource Management Plan.
Nearly 60 percent of the county's economy is tied to the extraction of oil and gas and related industries. Fifty percent of its wages and jobs are derived from the oil and gas industry, the county says.
The proposed wilderness area shuts "an estimated 385,000 acres of land to mineral development without following the mandatory withdrawal and management decision procedures in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act," the county says.
"When more than 5,000 acres are affected, defendants must follow additional procedures, including notification to the respective natural resource committees in Congress, filing a report which explains the reasons for the withdrawal, the economic impacts of the withdrawal, and the respective costs and benefits."
Uintah County is represented by Constance Brooks with C. E. Brooks & Associates of Denver and J. Mark Ward with the Utah Association of Counties.