Late on Election Day, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management announced a Dec. 19 auction of more than 50,000 acres of oil and gas parcels alongside or within view of Arches National Park and two other redrock national parks in Utah: Dinosaur and Canyonlands.
The National Park Service's top official in the state calls it "shocking and disturbing" and says his agency wasn't properly notified. Environmentalists call it a "fire sale" for the oil and gas industry by a departing administration.
Officials of the BLM, which oversees millions of acres of public land in the West, say the sale is nothing unusual, and one is "puzzled" that the Park Service is upset.
"We find it shocking and disturbing," said Cordell Roy, the chief Park Service administrator in Utah. "They added 51,000 acres of tracts near Arches, Dinosaur and Canyonlands without telling us about it. That's 40 tracts within four miles of these parks."
Top aides to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne stepped into the fray, ordering the sister agencies to make amends. His press secretary, Shane Wolfe, told The Associated Press that deputy Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett "resolved the dispute within 24 hours" last week.
A compromise ordered by the Interior Department requires the BLM to "take quite seriously" the Park Service's objections, said Wolfe.
However, the BLM didn't promise to pull any parcels from the sale, and in an interview after the supposed truce, BLM state director Selma Sierra was defiant, saying she saw nothing wrong with drilling near national parks.
"I'm puzzled the Park Service has been as upset as they are," said Sierra.
"There are already many parcels leased around the parks. It's not like they've never been leased," she said. "I don't see it as something we are doing to undermine the Park Service."
Roy and conservation groups dispute that, saying never before has the bureau bunched drilling parcels on the fence lines of national parks.
"This is the fire sale, the Bush administration's last great gift to the oil and gas industry," said Stephen Bloch, a staff attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
"The tracts of land offered here, next to Arches National Park or above Desolation Canyon, these are the crown jewels of America's lands that the BLM is offering to the highest bidder," he said.