The United States Supreme Court announced today that it will hear an appeal by the Bush administration arguing that it is not required to follow the law and protect wilderness landscapes throughout the west. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and other conservation groups originally filed the suit in 1999 after the federal Bureau of Land Management refused to protect Utah's spectacular redrock canyon country from off-road vehicle damage, in violation of federal law. The decision to take the case comes just one month after the Bush aministration announced a sweeping reversal of national wilderness policy that prevents the BLM from ever again studying and recommending public lands for wilderness designation.
A ruling in favor of the Bush administration would impact Wilderness Study Areas in places like Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Parunuweap Canyon (adjacent to Zion National Park), the San Rafael Swell, and the serpentine canyons and plateaus of the Moab area near Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. The impacts of the decision could reach, however, to wilderness landscapes across the West in places like Idaho's Owyhee Canyonlands, California's Skedaddle Mountains, and Colorado's Little Book Cliffs.
"The nation's wilderness quality lands have never been more at risk," said SUWA staff attorney Stephen Bloch. "The administration is trying to evade its own rules and open America's wildest public lands to development and damage. By targeting wilderness landscapes, there appear to be no places the Bush administration finds worthy of preservation."
"We filed this case because BLM has turned a blind eye to the ORVs that are ripping apart Utah's fragile and most pristine BLM lands," said Jim Angell, an attorney for Earthjustice. "The Supreme Court will decide whether the administration can continue to ignore the law and allow this ORV-related damage to continue, or whether the public has the right to force its federal agencies to protect the public's lands from the small number of ORV riders who believe that the public's lands are their private playgrounds."
The Supreme Court agreed to review a landmark decision issued in 2002 by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, which held in favor of conservation groups that the Department of the Interior can be held accountable for its failure to follow the law and its own rules to protect WSAs from ORV damage. The Bush administration and ORV groups asked the high court to overturn the Tenth Circuit's decision.
"We will vigorously defend the public's right to demand that the Bush administration protect wilderness lands and that the administration be held accountable for its actions," said Suzanne Jones, Regional Director for The Wilderness Society. "Wilderness quality lands in Utah and across the western United States have been under attack for several years from not only ORVs, but also oil and gas development. We hope to change that."
"Action after action the Bush administration is attempting to wipe out America's wilderness," said Mike Matz, executive director of the Campaign for America's Wilderness. "Last month it said it will not recommend any new wilderness, and now the administration wants the court to say it does not have to protect the wilderness we have. Abandoning our children's natural heritage legacy is undemocratic and un-American."
The Supreme Court's decision to hear the case means that the court will hear oral argument as early as its Spring 2004 term.
The conservation groups involved in this litigation include the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, The Wilderness Society, the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club, the Great Old Broads for Wilderness, Wildlands CPR, the Utah Council of Trout Unlimited, American Lands Alliance, and Redrock Forests. The groups are represented by attorneys from the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Earthjustice, and the Washington, D.C. office of the law firm Jenner & Block.