Conservationists took legal steps Friday to reinstate interim wilderness protections for millions of acres of America's most cherished undisturbed natural areas throughout the nation. These previously protected areas were thrown open to logging, mining, oil and gas drilling and road building in April when the White House settled a lawsuit with the state of Utah, which had challenged federal authority to provide interim wilderness protections post 1991. All the lands in question are administered by the federal Bureau of Land Management, are unroaded and are largely in the same condition as when Europeans first arrived in North America.
Earthjustice appealed the legal settlement to the federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.
In 1976 Congress ordered the BLM to review lands it manages to identify all unroaded, undeveloped lands worthy of permanent congressionally designated wilderness protection. The BLM review, to be completed by 1991, was intended to provide Congress a map of lands deserving permanent protection under the 1964 Wilderness Act. The reviews completed by 1991,however, overlooked millions of acres deserving protection. To compensate for earlier errors, federal land managers, under authority of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, continued the identification process through the 1990's. Congress also gave the BLM authority to manage and protect lands other than those identified for Congress as potential wilderness areas under the agency's general land management authority. Every Presidential administration since Jimmy Carter -- including the Reagan Administration under infamous Interior Secretary James Watt -- recognized that BLM had the authority outside of the 1991 wilderness review process to protect lands for their wilderness character in local land management plans. In the recent Utah settlement, the Bush administration, ignoring Congress, attempted to write these wilderness protections out of existence through their settlement agreement.
The conservationists' appeal points out that the federal settlement with Utah incorrectly ignores authority to confer interim wilderness protections on wild BLM lands outside of the review required to be complete by 1991.
"Someone forgot to tell the White House our system of checks and balances allows only Congress to rewrite our laws," said Jim Angell of Earthjustice. "The Bush administration invitation to oil and gas developers, miners and others to help themselves to cherished natural places belonging to all Americans will have to be withdrawn because the settlement agreement is clearly illegal."
"Even the Reagan administration believed that these wild places should be protected, which shows you how extreme Secretary Norton's position is," said Pam Eaton, Four Corners States Regional Director for The Wilderness Society. "These lands belong to all Americans, and they should be protected for future generations until their fate is decided in the legal manner that Congress intended.
"It's just a shame that Utah's governor wants to end protection for wildlands like those next to Zion National Park and in the spectacular San Rafael Reef area," said Heidi McIntosh, Conservation Director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "Given the importance of recreation and scenery to Utah's economy and quality of life, he's also putting the goose that lays the golden egg on the chopping block."
Earthjustice filed the notice of appeal on Friday on behalf of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, The Wilderness Society, New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, Arizona Wilderness Coalition, Friends of Nevada Wilderness, Colorado Environmental Coalition, Natural Resources Defense Council, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, California Wilderness Coalition, and Idaho Conservation League. Briefing on the case could begin in the fall.
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