Conservationists filed suit yesterday in Federal District Court here charging the Interior Department with illegally withholding documents concerning a deal struck in secret that prohibits government identification and protection of wilderness-quality lands on more than 150 million acres.
The “no more wilderness” deal was cooked up behind closed doors by Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Utah Governor Mike Leavitt, who is now President Bush’s choice to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Earthjustice, working with Wilderness Society attorney Leslie Jones, filed the complaint on behalf of The Wilderness Society, the group that sought the documents. This is the second lawsuit conservation groups have been forced to file to obtain public records concerning secret negotiations between Leavitt and Norton.
“The Bush Administration and Gov. Leavitt worked in secret to kill the wilderness future of millions of acres of public lands in Utah, and tens of millions more across the country,” said Dave Alberswerth, The Wilderness Society’s Bureau of Land Management Program Director. “Norton and Leavitt cut the public out of public lands management. The public has a right to learn about and participate in decisions regarding how America’s public lands are managed.”
The lands at stake are overseen by the BLM. Under the “no more wilderness” deal, Norton agreed with Leavitt that the BLM could no longer inventory its lands across the West to determine if they have wilderness values, nor could the agency protect such lands as “Wilderness Study Areas.” Norton also agreed that BLM had no authority to protect lands for their wilderness character above a few million acres protected a decade ago as Wilderness Study Areas.
“Secretary Norton’s radical position never again to look for or protect wilderness lands reversed the policy of the Reagan administration and every other Interior Secretary from 1976 to the present, including James Watt,” said Ted Zukoski, one of the Earthjustice attorneys involved in the case. “The goal of the deal was clear: Gov. Leavitt wanted to open up some of Utah’s most spectacular lands to destructive activities such as oil drilling and road building.” The lands at stake include millions of acres previously found by BLM to have wilderness character, including lands adjacent to Zion and Canyonlands National Parks.
Just one business day after the “no more wilderness” deal was announced on April 11, The Wilderness Society requested Interior Department documents concerning the deal under the Freedom of Information Act. Under that law, documents shared between Utah and the Interior Department on the deal must be made available to the public. More than four months after the request, however, the Interior Department has provided only a token response.
Last year, Earthjustice (on behalf of The Wilderness Society and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance) was forced to sue the Interior Department to pry loose documents from another set of secret negotiations between Utah and the Interior Department. That lawsuit ultimately revealed that Leavitt was staking claims that could result in paving 100,000 miles of jeep tracks, cow paths, and hiking trails across national parks, national wildlife refuges, and other wild lands in Utah under a 19th Century law known as R.S. 2477.
“There’s a pattern here of Gov. Leavitt cutting the public out when it comes to decisions affecting the fate of America’s public lands, and then the Bush Administration ignoring the law by not disclosing evidence of the back-door deals,” said Zukoski. “For all his talk about ‘fair and balanced’ environmental decision-making, Gov. Leavitt seems to prefer operating under the cloak of darkness to benefit polluting industries. Is this really the kind of guy we want in charge of protecting the air we breathe and the water we drink?”