Bush administration efforts to hide public documents relating to a deal it struck in secret that lifts wilderness protection from wild federal lands have drawn a lawsuit from a conservation group. The lawsuit seeks to force the federal government to come clean on the backroom dealings with the State of Utah that led to a sweetheart settlement of a lawsuit by Utah challenging federal lands protections. The lawsuit was filed in the DC federal district court by Earthjustice representing the Colorado-based Center for Native Ecosystems.
The “no more wilderness” deal was hatched behind closed doors by Interior Secretary Gale Norton and then-Utah Governor, now EPA Administrator, Mike Leavitt. The lawsuit was filed after the Interior Department refused to provide requested documents on the deal. This is the third Freedom of Information Act lawsuit conservation groups have been forced to file to obtain public records concerning secret negotiations between Leavitt and Norton.
The lands at stake are overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. Under the “no more wilderness” deal, Norton agreed to prohibit BLM from inventorying its lands across the West to determine if they deserve interim wilderness protection until Congress can act on permanent protection. The Norton/Leavitt deal also potentially opens wild lands to development that had been enjoying interim wilderness protection. Of BLM’s 262 million acres, less than one-tenth are now protected as wilderness or wilderness study areas.
“The Bush administration and Governor Leavitt worked in secret to put logging, oil and gas drilling, and every other destructive use of public lands ahead of wilderness protection,” said Jacob Smith, Executive Director of Center for Native Ecosystems. “They reversed 25 years of wilderness protection policy, overturning a consistent policy from Reagan to Clinton. And they continue to stonewall the public’s efforts to know the truth behind how this deal was secretly cut.” Center for Native Ecosystems is a non-profit advocacy organization dedicated to conserving and recovering native and naturally functioning ecosystems in the Greater Southern Rockies.
“Secretary Norton’s radical position never again to consider, or protect, wilderness lands reversed the policy of the Reagan administration and every other Interior Secretary from 1976 to the present,” said Ted Zukoski, one of the Earthjustice attorneys involved in the case. “The goal of the deal was clear: Governor Leavitt and the Bush administration 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. Since the deal was secretly negotiated, BLM has sold drilling rights on tens of thousands of acres of wilderness-quality lands to the oil industry in Utah and Colorado, making future protection of the lands unlikely. Thousands of acres of wilderness quality lands in Utah were leased last Friday.
Just one business day after the “no more wilderness” deal was announced on April 11, 2003, 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. The Interior Department has refused to release the documents, relying on technicalities previously rejected by the courts.
Center for Native Ecosystems filed a separate Freedom of Information Act request seeking the documents in February 2004, doing so in a way that avoided the Interior Department’s discredited evasion tactics. But three months past the legal deadline, the Interior Department continues to withhold the records.
“The administration clearly doesn’t want the public to know how it cooked up this multi-million acre give-away to its friends in the oil industry,” said Smith. “To this administration, secrecy is better than truth, spin better than fact, and public ignorance better than public knowledge.”
For more information about Center for Native Ecosystems, visit www.nativeecosystems.org.