At Sand Wash, Utah, a dusty slice of back country 45 miles from the nearest paved road, river-raft guide John Weisheit lectures tourists about the history of the Green River and the wilderness experience that will soon unfold for them.
Climbing into rafts, they float on chocolate waters, following the path of 19th century explorer John Wesley Powell, beneath the cliffs of Desolation Canyon. No car engines or cellphones mar this trip far away from it all.
But soon, Mr. Weisheit says he may chop all wilderness references from his little lecture. They'll ring hollow, he says, if Sand Wash, a onetime crossing for pioneers and cattle, echoes instead with the sounds of diesel engines and drilling rigs exploring for oil and gas.
Wednesday, in the biggest sale of its kind in Utah history, the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) offered at auction oil- and gas-exploration leases on more than 360,000 acres of rugged back country - including UT-201, a 120-acre chunk of Green River flood plain that abuts Sand Wash, and another 16,000 acres a few miles away.
Not long ago such remote regions seemed on track to one day become officially protected wilderness areas. Now they're part of a huge debate over the proper use of public lands in the United States. At issue: When does energy security trump wilderness protection?
No one claims the oil and gas from public lands will free the nation from dependence on foreign oil. The amount of oil in the Rocky Mountain West is negligible - less than a year's supply for the nation. But the region's gas could supply the nation for a few years and, by lowering prices, save consumers billions of dollars. So should the US encourage such energy development wherever it's economically viable? Or, in the case of wilderness, does some higher standard apply?
To hear the White House and the oil and gas industry tell it, gaining access to public lands is a key to greater energy self-sufficiency.
"Basically, we've taken large chunks of the country and put it off-limits to any kind of exploration or development," said Vice President Dick Cheney at a town hall meeting in Hot Springs, Ark. "We don't drill off the East Coast, we don't drill off the West Coast.... Large parts of the Rocky Mountain West are off-limits."
Some 29 percent of the Rocky Mountain area's gas reserves are "effectively off limits" because of conditions that limit drilling, estimates a 2003 report done for the US Department of Energy by the National Petroleum Council, an industry lobby group. If such restrictions were removed nationwide, that easier access to public lands could save consumers $300 billion over 20 years, the report says, thanks to lower natural gas prices.
But such figures almost certainly overstate the case, energy analysts and environmentalists counter.
For example, domestic energy production is apparently not being held up by a lack of oil and gas leases. Since 1982, the US has leased or offered for lease 229 million acres of public land for oil and gas development across 12 Western states, according to a new report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a Washington-based environmental organization. That represents nearly 9 of every 10 BLM acres and covers an area bigger than Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona combined.
That doesn't leave much to exploit. In the five richest geological basins in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico, only 15 percent of the oil and 12 percent of the gas reserves on federal lands are off-limits, according to a 2003 joint study by the US departments of Energy, Interior, and Agriculture.
Drilling for gas is already on the upswing in the region. Five Rocky Mountain states saw drilling activity in August rise to their highest levels in a decade. Wyoming had 84 rigs operating versus an annual average of 38 over the past decade - 121 percent higher. For Utah, the 22 rigs operating are 76 percent higher than the average over a decade. For New Mexico, it's 30 percent; Montana, 166 percent; and Colorado, 171 percent.
Yet the energy produced from public lands is minuscule. Interior Department records show that only enough oil was produced between 1989 and 2003 to supply the nation for 53 days and enough natural gas for 221 days at current rates of consumption, the EWG report adds.
"These numbers put a hole in the argument you hear all the time from the oil industry and their allies that, 'If we could only get access, we could reduce our dependency on foreign oil,' " says Dusty Horwitt, coauthor of the EWG report. "In fact, they've had almost unfettered access, but dependence on foreign oil has increased significantly."
Nor are energy companies knocking each other down to drill more. EWG analysts say BLM's data show about 13 percent of public land is leased and 4 percent currently producing oil or gas. The US Department of the Interior, which oversees the BLM, reports smaller totals: 8 percent and 1 percent, respectively.
"You need to remember we are not talking about significant quantities of oil - or natural gas, for that matter," says Gal Luft, executive director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security in Washington, which focuses on energy security. "Tactically it may sound like a lot, but strategically it is not a lot of oil or gas."
But the federal study, which estimated there were 123 trillion cubic feet of "technically recoverable" natural gas in areas already open to leasing - enough to fuel the nation's needs for about six years at current consumption rates - may be too rosy.
Such numbers overstate the case because only about half of technically recoverable gas is likely to be found, says Michael Lynch, president of Strategic Energy & Economic Research in Winchester, Mass. "It will help on the margins - and of course the industry would rather have it than not," Mr. Lynch says. "But any notion that you're going to change the US energy balance significantly is an exaggeration."
Despite this, the federal government is pushing to open more public land anyway. A series of land-use decisions and proposals over the past four years shows the US is gearing up to make an average of 12.7 million acres a year available to oil and gas drilling, says the EWG report.
"We're not challenging the vast majority of these proposed leases," says Liz Thomas of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, an environmental organization, in Moab, Utah. "What we oppose is leasing these very remote places." Her group has been trying to block energy exploration on what she calls "wilderness quality" lands.
No land is being stripped of protections, says Rebecca Watson, assistant secretary for Land and Minerals Management at the Department of the Interior. She concedes, however, that in some areas where seasonal drilling prohibitions intended to protect wildlife overlap, these will be adjusted to give companies time to get in to drill for oil and gas.
"Nobody's advocating going into wilderness areas or parks," Ms. Watson says. "We're simply asking: 'Are all those constraints necessary, or are there other ways to protect these lands?' "
In fact, the BLM in Utah set aside from Wednesday's auction tens of thousands of acres of land that might otherwise have been leased - much of it for further environmental review, officials say.
Rather than a lack of land to lease, the real obstacle may be the leasing stipulations and conditions placed on exploration and development - conditions environmentalists say are vital, but oil men decry.
"The problem for us wasn't getting leases; the problem was being able to drill and develop those leases," says Geoff Ice, exploration manager at Rosewood Resources Inc. His Dallas oil and gas company has been working with three other companies for several years to get the necessary environmental approvals to drill on an 80,000-acre parcel near the Book Cliffs region of Utah. "It's just been ridiculous things holding us up. We got to the point where we're not as active in Utah anymore. We just got tired of fighting it."
Even so, environmentalists aren't optimistic such lands will be protected. The Book Cliffs region of Utah - a 250-mile-long escarpment with cliffs 2,000 feet high - is the longest such continuous formation in the world and serves as home to mountain lions, bald eagles, and peregrine falcons. But it sits on the edge of a zone of major oil and gas production. Back at the Green River, environmentalists worry scores of wells could be operating within a few miles of historic Sand Wash within a few years.
"Despite talking about protecting these lands, all the BLM has done is open them to oil and gas," says Nada Culver, a Wilderness Society attorney based in Denver. "They went through the full analysis for thousands of acres that met all the legal requirements for wilderness - but now they're not going to designate them wilderness, they're going to drill on them."
• The United States government owns nearly a third of US land, but the share varies widely by state - from a high of 88 percent in Nevada to a low of 0.4 percent in New York.
• Throw in the amount owned by states and government holdings account for 40 percent of US land.
• In China, the state owns all the land. Reformers leased it to farmers in the '80s. But as the economy boomed, local officials began taking it back for roads, dams, and other projects. More than 30 million have lost their farms.
Sources: National Wilderness Institute; Los Angeles Times