Backroom Deal Exposed
Conservation groups today released documents exposing the backroom dealings behind an illegal anti-wilderness settlement reached last year between the State of Utah and the federal government. The groups also filed a brief with the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals contesting the settlement, arguing it violates federal land management laws and is the product of organized complicity, rather than a fair, arms-length negotiation. Interior Secretary Gale Norton entered into the backroom agreement with the State of Utah last year, prohibiting the federal government from ever again considering protection for wild lands as Wilderness Study Areas on more than 150 million acres of public lands throughout the West. The Wilderness Society, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Natural Resources Defense Council, and other conservation groups are represented by attorneys from Earthjustice and Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
The impact of the wilderness settlement is being felt on the ground through a succession of oil lease sales in Utah and Colorado. In addition, while planning for new oil exploration in the Red Lake Wilderness Study Area, the Wyoming Bureau of Land Management recently confirmed that, because of the settlement, it will not consider information submitted by conservation groups about the wilderness character of the lands.
"These documents and the extreme rapidity with which BLM settled this case suggest that BLM's interest in settling the suit had little to do with a careful appraisal of the strength of Utah's case and everything to do with catering to the administration's environmentally hostile whims," said Leslie Jones of The Wilderness Society. "It is simply wrong and illegal to sidestep bedrock environmental laws this way."
Memos and personal correspondences that the Interior Department only released to The Wilderness Society after a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit had been filed show that BLM had nearly completed secret settlement negotiations just one day after Utah raised the claims that were the focus of settlement. Most remarkably, BLM surrendered to Utah on claims that the state had not even raised and that Utah had already lost before the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.
"The Interior Department not only gave Utah every single thing they asked for in the lawsuit, Interior even gave them things they hadn't asked for and couldn't possibly have won in a fair court trial," said Jim Angell, an Earthjustice attorney representing the groups.
In last year's settlement agreement, Interior Secretary Gale Norton renounced the authority of the BLM in any state to conduct wilderness inventories or to establish new Wilderness Study Areas.
The settlement also disowned BLM's comprehensive inventory of Utah's public lands, in which BLM itself found 2.6 million acres of public lands that were eligible for protection as wilderness. Moreover, the agreement specifically bars the BLM from using the information to designate new Wilderness Study Areas or protect the wilderness values of lands it identified. The new restrictions apply to BLM lands throughout the West. Documents obtained by TWS indicate that DOI considered repealing some wilderness protection policies a full month before Utah filed its lawsuit.
"Through this settlement, the Interior Department reversed a quarter century of agency policy in a manner that conflicts with every other agency's interpretation of law, and they did this in less than two weeks using an intentionally deceptive process," said Stephen Bloch, attorney for Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "That's not the way we're supposed to create policy in this country, and it is already having a devastating effect on our public lands in Utah and across the West."
Documents obtained through The Wilderness Society's Freedom of Information Act lawsuit also suggest that Interior Secretary's office was orchestrating a campaign to make it appear that the proposed anti-wilderness policies had congressional support. The documents show that Secretary Norton's staff drafted a letter for then-Alaska Senator Frank Murkowski to send to Secretary Norton calling for an end to reviews of federal lands for wilderness protection in Alaska. Two weeks after the draft circulated inside the Interior Department, a letter that uses large parts of the Interior draft verbatim was sent from the Alaska congressional delegation to Interior. On April 11, 2003, Secretary Norton agreed with Murkowski's request and shut down BLM's inventory of wilderness-quality lands in Alaska.
"Now that wilderness-quality lands are being put up for sale in Utah and Colorado, with more on the way in Wyoming, the ulterior motives behind last year's wilderness settlement have become clear," said Johanna Wald of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It's a growing tragedy for our public lands that an illegal Interior Department settlement is radically altering the landscapes and communities throughout the West, with no end in sight."
"The Bush administration's backroom deal not only sought to close the door on considering wilderness quality lands for permanent protection, but it also sought to close the courtroom doors to the American people," said Mike Matz, executive director of the Campaign for America's Wilderness. "I look forward to the higher court unlocking those doors and throwing away the key that Bush and his appointees have used to prevent America's wild treasures from entering the pipeline to Congress for permanent protection."
The conservation groups challenging the settlement include: The Wilderness Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, California Wilderness Coalition, Colorado Environmental Coalition, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, Arizona Wilderness Coalition, Friends of Nevada Wilderness, and Idaho Conservation League.