msnbc.com news services
updated 12/9/2004 9:31:54 AM ET 2004-12-09T14:31:54

A controversial federal oil and gas lease auction planned for Friday will offer companies the chance to bid for drilling rights on roadless tracts in a popular national forest.

The auction will be run by the Bureau of Land Management and offers 16,700 acres of land in the Uinta National Forest.

The areas are popular with hikers, hunters and anglers, and shelter wildlife such as elk, bald eagles, sage grouse and mule deer.

But the Forest Service said drilling rights will not necessarily lead to surface occupancy or road-building. Energy companies could use slant drilling to reach underground oil or gas pockets from outside the roadless parcels, said Kim Martin, forest engineer for the Uinta National Forest.

Opposition cites recreation
A coalition of conservation and outdoor industry groups on Wednesday asked the Forest Service to withdraw the lands from auction, but Martin said the Forest Service finished an environmental impact statement several years ago that cleared them for leasing.

Peter Metcalf, president of the Salt Lake City-based Black Diamond Equipment Ltd., said oil and gas development would ruin the qualities that customers seek when they hike in the area.

“It’s bad policy and a bad deal — bad for people, bad for the outdoor industry, and bad for Utah’s economy that is better served by sustainable recreation than one-time drilling,” he said.

Lee Peacock, president of the Utah Petroleum Association, said some companies obtain leases to conduct seismic surveys that don’t disturb public lands. But he also said the nation needs resources that are under more sensitive areas.

“Everyone wishes we could find oil and gas in nice, easy places, but those places are gone, used up. The oil and gas potential is evolving into more sensitive areas. We have to make a decision as a society to allow the responsible development of oil and gas leases on public lands,” he said.

No drilling near native cliff dwellings
On Tuesday, the bureau pulled from the offering parcels of land within view of Hovenweep National Monument, known for its ancient Native American cliff dwellings.

The possibility of drilling on those tracts on the Utah-Colorado border drew protests from archeologists, conservation groups and a former park ranger.

The Bush administration is focusing on energy development in the Rocky Mountain region to help lessen dependence on imported oil. However, environmental and hunting interests have also been vocal about keeping development out of areas viewed as gems for scenic or other reasons.

Last month the BLM said it would defer oil and natural gas drilling on the rim of the scenic Roan Plateau in western Colorado until 80 percent of anticipated wells had been drilled in the area below the rim.

About 3.7 million acres of land is under lease in Utah and about 17 million acres are available. Five million acres are withdrawn for wilderness study areas, national monuments or existing land use plans, the BLM said. 

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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