Salazar bans drilling near Canyonlands, Arches national parks in Utah

A last-minute Bush administration bid to allow oil and gas drilling on nearly 8,000 acres of public land near Arches and Canyonlands national parks in southeastern Utah was permanently blocked by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar Thursday, much to the relief of environmental groups fighting the move since late last year.

A favorite desert recreation haven for Coloradans and tourists from around the world, the Moab area immortalized by Edward Abbey in “Desert Solitaire” was in the crosshairs of energy development following a December auction in Salt Lake City marked by protests from conservationists such as movie producer and actor Robert Redford and infiltration by a bogus bidder.

On Thursday, Salazar, a former Colorado senator who previously suspended drilling on the 77 leases on more than 100,000 acres sold in that auction, took the advice of an 11-member team comprised of officials from the National Park Service, U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service.

The team reportedly looked at all the leases and recommended making eight near Canyonlands and Arches off limits due to concerns about sage grouse habitat, 17 available for drilling at future auctions and the other 52 the subject of further study. Oil and gas backers, predictably, were dismayed by what the deemed an ongoing Obama administration assault on domestic energy production.

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