Official suspends wilderness reviews - Decision limits amount
of land eligible for protection
"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 that 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 appalling."
Clinton policy dismissed
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.
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.
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