Salt Lake City, UT
Reviving a six-year old lawsuit that had lain dormant since a 1998 Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that gutted it, the State of Utah and the Utah Association of Counties have renewed their attack on Utah’s famed redrock wilderness.
Today Earthjustice and SUWA attorneys, on behalf of Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, The Wilderness Society, New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, Arizona Wilderness Coalition, Friends of Nevada Wilderness, and Colorado Environmental Coalition, sought to intervene in the suit filed on March 28.
Although the suit is filed in Utah, its outcome, either through court order or a secret negotiated settlement, will have repercussions throughout the West, where the Bureau of Land Management has applied the challenged policy, known as the Wilderness Inventory Handbook, to protect wilderness landscapes from California to Colorado, Montana to Arizona.
The state asks the court to overturn the 2001 Handbook under which the agency assesses the wilderness qualities of lands affected by proposed developments like mining, oil drilling or road construction. Under the Wilderness Act of 1964, roadless, undeveloped lands qualify for congressionally-designated protection. In Utah, outdated and inaccurate inventories from the 1970s only recognized about 3 million out of 9 million acres of wilderness landscapes, leaving the balance – some of the most scenic lands in the nation — vulnerable to development.
The state also asks the court to rule that the Interior Department lacks any authority to recognize and protect the wilderness character of any BLM lands that were ignored in earlier, faulty studies from the early 1980s.
“The Wilderness Inventory Handbook is a valuable tool that corrects past BLM errors, and ensures that both the agency and the public know what irreplaceable jewels are at stake as we face unprecedented pressure to pave and drill our most cherished landscapes,” explained Heidi McIntosh of SUWA. “The state’s position, that the BLM should manage these lands blindfolded to their beauty, is a slap in the face to all Americans who believe in wilderness preservation and public accountability.”
Jim Angell, of Earthjustice said, “The state and federal government are rushing pell mell to develop some of America’s last wild lands. Truly wild lands, like these in Utah, that support native plants and animals, aren’t being made anymore. It’s clear to most Americans that it’s best to protect what’s left.”
Potential for secret settlement: The state’s papers make clear that it has already been negotiating with the Department of Interior for a quick settlement in which DOI would revoke the Wilderness Handbook. This would be consistent with this administration’s history of settling environmental disputes behind closed doors, without the benefit of public oversight or involvement.
The motion to intervene in this case follows a letter sent by 15 national conservation groups last week asking the Department of Interior not to cave in to Utah’s continual pressure to develop roads, mines, oil fields, excessive off-road vehicle trails and other damaging uses of the redrock wilderness lands.
Background: In 1996, Secretary of Interior Babbitt instructed the BLM to review the wilderness lands in Utah that were overlooked in the 1970s. The State and UAC quickly obtained an injunction from Judge Dee Benson of the U.S. District Court in Utah. In 1998, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals threw out Judge Bensen’s injunction, and ordered him to dismiss seven of the eight remaining claims, decimating the case. Amending the suit to attack the Wilderness Handbook keeps the case before Judge Benson.
The Handbook is a key component of the BLM’s management approach as it completes long-term planning documents that will govern use of the public lands for the next 15 years or more. The Handbook also plays a role when individual proposals to drill for oil or mine for coal are submitted by ensuring that spectacular canyon country and wildlife habitat is not unknowingly destroyed by development. (For images of some of the places at risk, see www.suwa.org.)
The Wilderness Handbook came under fire recently when Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah) and other Republican congressional representatives sent a letter to Sec. Norton demanding that she rescind the Handbook.