A conservation organization has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Interior over oil and gas leases offered in southeast Utah, claiming the parcels are packed with ancient cultural relics.
Advocates for the West filed the suit Wednesday in federal court in Utah on behalf of Friends of Cedar Mesa.
The lawsuit targets the first of three oil and gas lease sales held in March 2018. The Bureau of Land Management has not yet issued the leases.
The parcels are between Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in Colorado and the former boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. The organization claims the area contains dozens of ancient community centers and Chacoan Great Houses.
The Cedar Mesa group has worked with federal land managers, but officials have refused to remove the sensitive parcels from potential leasing, said Josh Ewing, executive director of the organization.
"For an on-the-ground organization focused on stewardship and working constructively with government agencies, going to court is an absolute last resort for us," Ewing said. "However, if we don't stand up for these lands and cultural sites, no one will."
The federal government has acknowledged the existence of 1,700 archaeological sites on the parcels, Ewing said. More than 900 sites in the area are eligible for listing on the national register, according to the lawsuit.
"In many of these lease parcels, less than 10 percent of the lands have been surveyed," said Don Simonis, a former archaeologist for the Bureau of Land Management. "So the recorded sites the BLM knows about are just the tip of the iceberg."