SALT LAKE CITY – The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has paved the way for oil and gas drilling on more than 51,000 acres of public lands in southeastern Utah this week, by selling leases for areas close to Canyons of the Ancients, Bears Ears and Hovenweep National Monuments – best known for Native American cultural heritage sites, high densities of ruins, rock art, and other artifacts.

According to Aaron Weiss, media director for the Center for Western Priorities, it is a move consistent with actions taken since Ryan Zinke took the reins as U.S. Secretary of the Interior.

“He has given the oil and gas industry absolutely everything they want, while ignoring the impacts to the environment, ignoring impacts to tribal nations, ignoring impacts to the folks on the ground who live around oil and gas development,” Weiss charged.

Weiss’ group has identified 24 policies favored by the oil and gas industry, and found that since President Donald Trump has been in office, 22 have either been completed, are underway or slated for action.

Zinke has defended moves to clear the way for oil and gas development, citing the administration’s priority of achieving energy dominance.

Mining and drilling are not explicitly prohibited on the lands leased by the BLM. But Weiss said the agency, charged with managing public lands for multiple uses, shouldn’t prioritize development over protecting rare archeological sites.

He added that extraction companies already are sitting on more leases than they know what to do with, primarily due to low oil and gas prices.

“Why is it worth the risk of offering up these incredibly fragile areas in southern Utah, when there’s so much else out there that is appropriate for drilling, that they’re not even bidding on?” he asked.

Conservation groups have filed a protest over the BLM’s determination that oil and gas development in the region would have “no adverse effect.” The leases won’t become official until the challenge is resolved by the agency or in court.