Zinke-led Interior Dept offers oil leases near Utah monuments

WASHINGTON, March 20 (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Interior on Tuesday will auction off more than 51,000 acres (21,000 hectares) in southeastern Utah for oil and gas development, over objections from conservationists, who say the move threatens sensitive archaeological and wilderness sites.

The auction comes as the administration of President Donald Trump seeks to boost domestic energy production by expanding federal leasing and rolling back land protections – an agenda that has cheered industry but outraged environmentalists.

The Utah lease sale will include terrain near the boundaries of the former Bears Ears National Monument, whose size was scaled back by the Trump administration last year, as well as the Hovenweep and Canyons of the Ancients monuments, according to the department.

Local officials are eager to open up the areas, which are administered by department's Bureau of Land Management, arguing that resource extraction is one of the few economic opportunities for the towns of rural San Juan county, one of Utah's poorest areas.

"Oil and gas operations are an important contributor to a diversified county economy and the county supports leasing as a necessary step toward realizing economic benefits," county planner Nick Sanberg said in comments to the BLM.

RELATED: A look at Utah's wilderness monuments

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Utah monuments
An old barn stands in a residential yard in Blanding, Utah, U.S., October 31, 2017. REUTERS/Andrew Cullen
Hundreds of petroglyphs cover Newspaper Rock, in Bears Ears National Monument, Utah, U.S., October 29, 2017. REUTERS/Andrew Cullen 
Comb Wash cuts from north to south through Cedar Mesa in Bears Ears National Monument near Blanding, Utah, U.S., October 27, 2017. REUTERS/Andrew Cullen 
A creek runs through Arch Canyon in Bears Ears National Monument near Blanding, Utah, U.S., October 27, 2017. REUTERS/Andrew Cullen 
A man walks over a natural bridge at Butler Wash in Bears Ears National Monument near Blanding, Utah, U.S., October 27, 2017. REUTERS/Andrew Cullen 
A sign advertises Natural Bridges National Monument on the way into Blanding, Utah, U.S., October 29, 2017. REUTERS/Andrew Cullen 
Rock climber David Rozul makes an ascent in Indian Creek, an area that attracts outdoor recreationists from around the world to Bears Ears National Monument, Utah, U.S., October 29, 2017. REUTERS/Andrew Cullen 
Trick-or-treaters pose for a photograph in Blanding, Utah, U.S., October 31, 2017. REUTERS/Andrew Cullen
A sign showing support for Bears Ears National Monument is seen in a front yard in Bluff, Utah, U.S., October 28, 2017. REUTERS/Andrew Cullen 
Kinley Wojcik looks at her phone as she works behind the counter at Higher Grounds Coffee and Soda, the only dedicated coffee shop in Blanding, Utah, U.S., October 30, 2017. REUTERS/Andrew Cullen 
A vehicle displays a sticker opposing the Bears Ears National Monument in Blanding, Utah, U.S., October 31, 2017. REUTERS/Andrew Cullen 
An all-terrain vehicle stands covered up in a front yard in Blanding, Utah, U.S., October 30, 2017. REUTERS/Andrew Cullen 
Tewa Martin and Sylas Burbank, both from Montezuma Creek, sit on a truck before riding in the Bluff Navajo Fair parade in Bluff, Utah, U.S., October 28, 2017. REUTERS/Andrew Cullen 
The moon glows over Indian Creek in the northern portion of Bears Ears National Monument, Utah, U.S., October 29, 2017. REUTERS/Andrew Cullen 
Trick-or-treaters ride horses through the streets in Blanding, Utah, U.S., October 31, 2017. REUTERS/Andrew Cullen 
Ranchers close a gate after collecting cattle near Monticello, Utah, U.S., October 31, 2017. REUTERS/Andrew Cullen S
Albert Cly, Jr. poses for a photograph outside his home in Westwater, a small Native American community near Blanding, Utah, U.S., October 31, 2017. REUTERS/Andrew Cullen 
Oil pumpjacks are seen near Aneth, Utah, U.S., October 29, 2017. REUTERS/Andrew Cullen 
Elvira Begay fixes her float before the Bluff Navajo Fair parade in Bluff, Utah, U.S., October 28, 2017. REUTERS/Andrew Cullen 
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But conservation groups fumed, threatening lawsuits.

“We won’t sit idly by while President Trump and Interior Secretary (Ryan) Zinke auction off America’s cultural and public lands heritage to the oil and gas industry,” said Stephen Bloch, legal director with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which argued BLM did not adequately study potential impacts on wilderness and cultural sites.

Southeastern Utah’s dramatic landscapes are rich in Native American artifacts, historical sites, and dinosaur fossils.

Zinke this month deferred or scaled back two other lease sales near archaeological and tourist sites in New Mexico and his home state of Montana amid local outcry and opposition from state lawmakers.

Utah’s Republican congressional delegation supports the Utah lease sale.

Josh Ewing, director of Utah conservation group Friends of Cedar Mesa, said that he believed the Department of the Interior had given drilling opponents legal ammunition to challenge the sale by deferring the previous auctions: "Zinke clearly demonstrated that these decisions are not being made based on science but rather based on who has the ear of the secretary."

Interior Department spokeswoman Heather Swift declined to comment.

Recent lease sales have yielded relatively low bids, a reflection of soft demand for federal property as the oil and gas industry taps vast reserves on private lands. (Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; editing by Richard Valdmanis and Steve Orlofsky)

RELATED: US Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke

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KATAHDIN WOODS AND WATERS NATIONAL MONUMENT, ME - JUNE 14: With Mount Katahdin in the background, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke talks to the media during a tour of the Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument on Wednesday, June 14, 2017. Zinke was touring the monument because it is one of dozens of monuments up for review under an executive order from President Trump. (Staff Photo by Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke rides a boat to Georges Island, while traveling for his National Monuments Review process, in Boston Harbor, Massachusetts, U.S., June 16, 2017. Picture taken June 16, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is interviewed by Reuters, while traveling for his National Monuments Review process, in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., June 16, 2017. Picture taken June 16, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke (L) high fives National Park Service Ranger Beth Jackendoff on his National Monuments review visiting sites around Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., June 16, 2017. Picture taken June 16, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke waits to take the stage with President Donald Trump for his on infrastructure improvements, at the Department of Transportation in Washington, U.S. June 9, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke (C) talks to National Park Service Rangers, while traveling for his National Monuments Review process, in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., June 16, 2017. Picture taken June 16, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 12: Ryan Zinke visits SiriusXM Studios on September 12, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Santiago Felipe/Getty Images)
SHANKSVILLE, PA - SEPTEMBER 10: Visitors listen to US Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke at the groundbreaking of the Tower Of Voices at the Flight 93 National Memorial on the 16th Anniversary ceremony of the September 11th terrorist attacks, September 10, 2017 in Shanksville, PA. United Airlines Flight 93 crashed into a field outside Shanksville, PA with 40 passengers and 4 hijackers aboard on September 11, 2001. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 20: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke testifies during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, on June 20, 2017 in Washington, DC. The committee heard testimony on U.S. President Donald Trump's proposed FY2018 budget request for the Interior Department. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 20: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke testifies during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing in Dirksen Building on the department's FY2018 budget request on June 20, 2017. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
KATAHDIN WOODS AND WATERS NATIONAL MONUMENT, ME - JUNE 14: With Mount Katahdin in the background, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, left, talks with Lucas St. Clair, right, during a tour of the Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument on Wednesday, June 14, 2017. Zinke was touring the monument because it is one of dozens of monuments up for review under an executive order from President Trump. St. Clair's family gifted the land for the monument. (Staff Photo by Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 20: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke testifies during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing in Dirksen Building on the department's FY2018 budget request on June 20, 2017. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
MILLINOCKET, ME - JUNE 15: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaks with members of the Katahdin Chamber of Commerce and Millinocket town council during a breakfast at Twin Pines Lodge in Millinocket on Thursday, June 14, 2017. Zinke is in Maine for a review of the Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument, one of over two dozen reviews ordered by President Trump. (Staff Photo by Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
US Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke listens while US President Donald Trump speaks at the US Department of Transportation June 9, 2017 in Washington, DC. Trump visit of the Transportation Department is part of a White House push to overhaul America's infrastructure. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
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