Last Friday, October 8, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the Bush administration violated the Freedom of Information Act by concealing documents related to a deal cut in secret that makes development possible on millions of acres of America’s last wild lands. The deal prohibits government identification and protection of wilderness-quality lands on more than 150 million acres of lands belonging to all Americans. Interior Secretary Gale Norton and then-Utah Governor (now EPA Administrator) Mike Leavitt defied more than a quarter century of precedent in managing public lands when they agreed to a new policy that handcuffs land managers when it comes to identifying and protecting wilderness.
“The Bush administration and Gov. Leavitt worked in secret to end consideration of wilderness protection for millions of acres of public lands in Utah, and tens of millions more across the country,” said Leslie Jones, an attorney for The Wilderness Society, the group that is seeking the public records. “The federal court’s ruling says that the government can’t use bogus excuses to hide how the deal was reached.”
Immediately following the April 2003 settlement of a lawsuit filed by Utah challenging federal wilderness protection practices, The Wilderness Society requested Interior Department documents under the Freedom of Information Act to learn how and why the hurried, secret deal was reached. After four months of agency stonewalling, Earthjustice attorney Ted Zukoski, working with The Wilderness Society’s Ms. Jones, filed suit in August 2003 to find out how the deal was hatched. Though the Interior Department provided some documents after the group filed suit, the agency blacked out or refused to provide scores of documents that could shed embarrassing light on the collusive nature of the backroom deal.
On Friday, Federal District Court Judge Reggie B. Walton ordered the Interior Department to release the documents within 30 days or come up with a legal explanation for withholding them. Judge Walton found that none of the reasons provided by the agency for hiding documents met the law’s strict limits on when the government can keep information from the public.
The lands at stake are overseen by the federal Bureau of Land Management. Under the “No More Wilderness” deal, Norton agreed with Leavitt that the BLM could no longer consider adding lands across the West to a list of candidate areas awaiting congressional consideration for permanent protection as wilderness. In the past such areas have been protected on an interim basis as “Wilderness Study Areas.” Ten conservation groups represented by Earthjustice and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance are currently challenging the “No More Wilderness” deal before the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. A hearing on that challenge is likely to occur early next year.
Tens of thousands of acres of wilderness-quality lands have been opened up to oil and gas leasing since the deal was struck. Such leasing could lead to road and pipeline construction and other industrial development that can destroy an area’s wild nature. “When BLM makes a decision to never again even consider wilderness study protection for spectacular places like Utah’s Desolation Canyon, Colorado’s Roan Plateau, and New Mexico’s Otero Mesa, the public has a right to know why,” said The Wilderness Society’s Leslie Jones.
Documents made public last week as a result of another lawsuit show that Utah and the Interior Department hurried the “No More Wilderness” deal to try to eliminate public involvement in the settlement. Again, many of the documents the Interior Department provided in response to that lawsuit were blacked out or withheld without legal basis.
“This administration worked overtime to cut the public out of managing lands owned by all Americans,” said Zukoski. “Under this backroom deal, America’s public lands are now being managed to place every other use – including oil drilling, logging, and mining – above protection of wild, natural places. The court’s ruling should help us shine a little sunlight on this shady deal.”
Click here for a copy of the ruling. (pdf file)
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