The Interior Department has opened an investigation into allegations that Utah Bureau of Land Management (BLM) officials made commitments to “fix” new land-use plans to assure more oil and natural gas development on wilderness-quality lands in the state.

The probe by Interior’s inspector general will explore allegations that top BLM officials met in secret with representatives of Utah counties and pledged to manipulate resource management plans (RMPs) to benefit the oil and gas industry.

Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) requested the Interior investigation in August after obtaining an e-mail written by a Utah lobbyist that he said supports the claim that the agency may have agreed to rig RMPs to favor oil and gas development.

In his letter to the House lawmaker, Interior Inspector General Early E. Devaney said his office would probe the “concerns” raised by Hinchey that BLM officials in Utah “have compromised the integrity of BLM’s resource management planning process and have ‘eroded the protection of federal lands in the state of Utah.'” Devaney told Hinchey’s office that the inquiry could take two to three months to complete.

The e-mail in question came from Robert Weidner, a lobbyist for several Utah counties, and it reported on a July meeting with Henri Bisson, acting director of the BLM office in Utah, and Interior official Jim Hughes during which oil and gas and other issues in ongoing Utah BLM RMPs were discussed, according to Hinchey. Weidner’s e-mail to his clients said, “We as counties owe it [to] each other to strike while the iron is hot in finalizing these RMPs. As the governing documents over public lands for the next 20 years, working with the new state BLM director and state to ‘fix’ these RMPs is an opportunity which may never come.”

The “clear implication of the Weidner e-mail is that BLM and the Bush administration have breached the public’s trust. BLM has apparently agreed to manipulate its blueprint for managing the public’s lands to benefit the oil and gas industry,” said Stephen Bloch of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) at the time Hinchey requested the investigation.

The BLM contends that nothing out of the ordinary occurred at the July meeting. “It is fully appropriate for the BLM to meet with local governments at their request. Local governments are cooperating agencies in land-use planning,” as well as large organizations such as SUWA and local grassroots citizen groups, the BLM said.

“If the Department of the Interior’s inspector general chooses to review this matter, the BLM is confident its involvement with cooperating agencies will be viewed as fully appropriate by parties from inside and outside of Utah.”

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