Interior Says 'No' to New Wilderness Areas in Utah
Las Vegas Sun
|How did it happen? "It was little by little,
accretion with acreage here and there, until the number in Utah
is 9 million acres," Leavitt said.
WASHINGTON (AP) - The Interior Department intends to halt all reviews
of its Western land holdings for new wilderness protection and to
withdraw that protected status from some 3 million acres in Utah,
it informed Congress on Friday.
By suspending wilderness reviews, the department would limit the
amount of land held by its Bureau of Land Management eligible for
wilderness protection at 22.8 million acres nationwide - a figure
that environmental groups say leaves millions of pristine acres vulnerable
to oil and gas development and off-road vehicle use. Congress, however,
could order additional areas protected.
"The Department stands firmly committed to the idea that we
can and should manage our public lands to provide for multiple use,
including protection of those areas that have wilderness characteristics,"
Interior Secretary Gale Norton said in a letter sent late Friday to
members of Congress.
The wilderness decisions Norton advised Congress about are contained
in a legal settlement of a lawsuit brought by Utah. The settlement
must be approved by federal judge in Utah, who also has yet to rule
on efforts by environmentalists to intervene in the case.
Norton said in 1976 Congress gave the Interior Department 15 years
to inventory wilderness areas, and only those areas identified by
1991 as having wilderness characteristics qualified for protection.
But environmental groups objected when they learned of the decisions.
"This administration's assault on America's wilderness continues,"
said Jim Angell of EarthJustice. "What they're saying is these
wilderness-quality lands throughout the West will continue to be degraded
and continue to lose their eligibility for wilderness. ... It's just
Norton also said she was setting aside the 2001 Wilderness Handbook
- a land management policy implemented in the waning days of the Clinton
administration - which required the BLM to protect the wilderness
qualities of lands that could qualify as wilderness areas.
The requirement created millions of acres of de facto wilderness,
even though only Congress can make such designations.
Wilderness areas, as defined by the 1964 Wilderness Act, are those
areas "untrammeled by man," and are protected from oil and
gas development, off-road use, and various types of construction.
The policy changes come as part of a settlement that was to be filed
Friday in federal court in Salt Lake City. Utah had sued the Interior
Department in 1996 over a reinventory of 3 million acres conducted
by then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.
Most of the lawsuit was dismissed, and it sat dormant for years until
the state amended its complaint last month.
In Utah, specifically, the announcement means that the department
will disregard the results of Babbitt's 1996 reinventory. That inventory
identified 5.9 million acres of Utah land that qualified for wilderness
protection, 3 million acres more than found in the original inventory
during the Reagan administration.
The BLM had been managing the land to preserve its wilderness characteristics.
Now it can be used according to the land-use plans that had been prepared
previously by the BLM, which could include mining and recreation.
Norton noted that wildness quality areas also could be protected in
land use plans without ever being designed as wildness areas.
"It looks like Interior agrees with me and my Western colleagues
that the BLM does not have the authority to designate new wilderness
study areas, ... doesn't have authority beyond what Congress gave
it," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "Secretary Norton's
actions will bring resolution to the illegal activities of the past
This was the second time this week that the department has made a
major policy announcement resulting from secret settlement negotiations
with the state. On Wednesday, Norton and Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt agreed
to a process for transferring disputed roads across federal lands
to state ownership.
Potential wilds no longer get protection
Deseret News staff writer
In a pivotal decision that will dramatically alter the 25-year wilderness
debate, the federal government on Friday agreed with Utah's legal
argument that current federal policies toward potential wilderness
The Department of Interior, in settling the case, has agreed to remove
legal protections now afforded to those potential wilderness areas
identified after 1991, and to discard its current wilderness policies,
articulated in the "Wilderness Handbook."
"Only Congress can create wilderness, only Congress can create
wilderness study areas and only Congress can terminate access to the
resources (on public lands)," said Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, who
noted the Department of Interior and the Department of Justice approached
the state wanting to settle the 1996 lawsuit.
"They concluded it was in their interest to resolve this matter,"
Conservationists were devastated, but not particularly surprised by
the news. "Given this administration, it is no surprise at all
it adopted the most radical anti-environmental position it could,"
said Jim Angell, an attorney for Earth Justice in Denver who is representing
six regional conservation groups trying to intervene in the lawsuit.
But that motion on Thursday might have come too late as the state
and federal government filed their own notice Friday that they had
settled the suit.
The case has languished in U.S. District Court since 1998 when the
10th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected seven of eight state claims.
The state and federal government have been negotiating over the one
On May 28, the state, along the Utah Association of Counties and the
School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, amended their
lawsuit, in effect filing a whole new series of claims that federal
land managers did not have authority to identify or manage wilderness
not specifically authorized by Congress. And there has been no congressional
approval for any wilderness studies since 1991.
In a letter sent late Friday to members of Congress, Interior Secretary
Gale Norton said, "The Department of Interior stands firmly committed
to the idea that we can and should manage our public lands to provide
for multiple use, including protection of those areas that have wilderness
Norton also said she was setting aside the 2001 Wilderness Handbook
— a land management policy implemented in the waning days of the Clinton
administration — which required the BLM to protect the wilderness
qualities of lands that could qualify as wilderness areas. That requirement
created millions of acres of de facto wilderness.
The settlement affects not only Utah, but all Western states. And
it will have far-reaching impacts on conservation groups throughout
the region, which have used small armies of volunteers to document
lands they believe are worthy of wilderness designation. Federal land
managers have then incorporated those findings into land management
In Utah, conservationists identified 9 million acres of potential
But the Utah settlement throws all that out. It also discards a 1999
inventory of Utah lands, ordered by then-Secretary of Interior Bruce
Babbitt, that identified 5.9 million acres.
Friday's settlement takes the numbers game back to 1991. In 1976,
Congress allowed for a 15-year inventory of Western lands for wilderness
consideration. And at the end of that period, the Bureau of Land Management
had identified 3.2 million acres in Utah.
Advocates on both sides of the debate agreed that inventory was flawed,
with county commissioners arguing it was too much and conservationists
saying it was too little and blaming the Reagan Administration with
politicizing the process.
But Leavitt says 1991 is a good starting point.
"We have 3.2 million acres to choose from and we ought to get
started," he told the Deseret News. "I am prepared to begin
advancing wilderness proposals to Congress. The only issue is not
if, but where and how much."
Conservationists do not know what their next move will be. But they
vehemently disagree with attorneys for the state and federal government
who agree the federal government has no legal standing.
"The courts have all rejected Utah's argument, and it is appalling
the administration is adopting it," Angell said.
But Utah officials and their attorneys say their argument is rooted
in Article 4 of the U.S. Constitution, which gives only Congress the
right to manage public lands.
How did it happen? "It was little by little, accretion with acreage
here and there, until the number in Utah is 9 million acres,"
And it happened during the Clinton Administration when the BLM expanded
its wilderness mission to include wilderness values in its decisions
on whether or not to allow mining, roads, oil and gas exploration
and recreation. Millions of acres across the West were consequently
managed as wilderness, even though they were never part of any inventory
sanctioned by Congress.
"Secretary Norton's actions will bring resolution to the illegal
activities of the past administration," said Sen. Orrin Hatch,
April 11, 2003: Environmentalists
scrambling to counter Utah wilds lawsuit
April 10, 2003: Utah
poised to take control of numerous rural roads
April 10, 2003: Green
light on rural roads
March 4, 1998:
Inventory of Utah wilds is back on track
Nov. 20, 1996: Babbitt
going for end run on wilds?
Aug. 1, 1996: Babbitt
orders new study on potential wilderness
Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance
Utah Bureau of Land Management Web
Utah Wilderness Coalition Web
U.S. Department of the Interior Web