Bush Administration Takes Wilderness Dispute to Supreme Court

Administration wants court to rule public can barred from trying to save wild public lands


Jim Angell, Earthjustice, 303-623-9466


Scott Groene, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, 801-486-7639, ext. 26


Kathryn Seck, Campaign for America’s Wilderness, 202-266-0436


David Slater, The Wilderness Society, 202-429-8441

Late Friday, the Bush administration asked the U.S. Supreme Court to throw out a lower court ruling that found the public has a right to enforce wilderness protections on public lands. The case, which originated in Utah, centers on whether the public can force the federal government to protect Wilderness Study Areas from damage. By requesting that the Supreme Court review the case, the administration is saying it has sole authority to protect, or ignore, America’s public lands.

Federal law requires WSAs to be protected from off-road vehicles, mining, logging, road building, and other development. In addition, federal law provides citizens the ability to take agencies to court and gives the courts the authority to compel federal agencies to meet legal requirements.

“A decision in favor of the Bush administration would have dire consequences for Western public lands,” said Dave Alberswerth of The Wilderness Society. “This case addresses the basic question of whether our federal agencies have the obligation to enforce their own rules to protect the lands under their jurisdiction. This is just the latest example of the Bush administration’s complete disregard for stewardship responsibilities for our public treasures.”

In the Utah case being appealed to the Supreme Court, the federal government admitted damage from ORVs in WSAs. The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals found citizens have the right to step in and enforce federal lands protections when the government fails to do so. Now the administration is trying to get this ruling overturned at the Supreme Court arguing that the American people do not have a right to hold federal agencies accountable for breaking federal law.

“Public involvement in decisions over public lands use is the one problem standing in the way of developers, loggers, miners and off road vehicle users. Now the Bush administration is taking its case to the Supreme Court to get the public out of the way,” said Earthjustice attorney Jim Angell.

This latest action comes on the heels of several anti-wilderness policies promoted by the Bush administration.

· In January, the Department of the Interior issued a “disclaimer of interest” regulation providing broad ability for the federal government to turn over rights-of-way across federal lands to states and counties. This regulation provides the ability for states and counties to prevent future wilderness designations by claiming a highway route through public lands.

· In April, DOI signed a secret agreement with the state of Utah codifying this disclaimer rule and opened the door for the state and counties to lay claim to hiking trails and cow paths under a long-repealed loophole known as RS 2477. (The state of Utah and several counties intervened in this suit, asking the judge not to close any area to ORV use – no matter how damaged – claiming the trails in question rightfully belong to the state or counties under RS 2477.)

· In April, DOI settled a separate lawsuit with the state of Utah revoking the ability for the Bureau of Land Management to review and recommend any more of its lands for possible wilderness designation by Congress.

“The Bush administration first says it will hold this wilderness in public trust for all Americans, and that’s why we don’t need anymore wilderness, and now the Bush administration is saying the complete opposite,” said Mike Matz, executive director of the Campaign for America’s Wilderness. “Now the administration says it shouldn’t be required to protect what wilderness is already under its auspices, until Congress acts. So much for trusting the federal government will uphold its word to protect America’s lands, and so much for letting Americans participate in the process by which we bequeath them to our children, because this latest action in a long series of ruthless policy pronouncements rewards only the Big Business types who benefit from despoiling public lands.”

“Thousands of Americans have logged countless hours inventorying these special places so that one day their children and grandchildren can enjoy a wilderness legacy,” said Carl Pope, Sierra Club executive director. “The Bush administration is willing to go all the way to the Supreme Court to deny that legacy.”

The administration is challenging the ruling of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which found the public can sue the federal government when it fails to protect WSAs from damage, as required under the Federal Land Management Policy Act.

The Supreme Court is expected to decide whether or not to take this case by this fall. If the court decides to hear the case, proceedings would begin in 2004 and Earthjustice will be there to represent the public’s right to enforce public lands protections.


Additional Resources

About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people's health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.