Monday, October 25, 2004

Los Angeles Times: Recasting Wilderness as Open for Business

Summary Report
Isn't it ironic.  It we maintain the status quo the hunting, fishing, card-carrying NRA members won't have a place to hunt and fish.  plk
Los Angeles Times: Recasting Wilderness as Open for Business,1,3791084.story?coll=la-home-headlines

A Bush administration policy reversal ends decades of shielding the nation's untamed areas.

PRICE, Utah --- The sculpted buttes of Wild Horse Mesa, the vast escarpment of the Book Cliffs and the soaring ramparts of Upper Desolation Canyon near here have become a prime battleground in the Bush administration's campaign to curb wilderness protection throughout the country.

In 1999, the federal government acknowledged the unique character of the area, where 150 million years of the earth's geologic history unfolds and the forces of nature continue to shape the rugged landscape.

The Bureau of Land Management put more than 440,000 acres off-limits to industrial development.

Under the Bush administration, 2.6 million acres of Utah land that had been shielded from development were suddenly open for business.

Not only does the new policy cancel protection of the Utah land, it withholds the interim safeguards traditionally applied to areas with wilderness potential until Congress decides whether to make them part of the national wilderness system.

But what most distinguishes the administration's position is its claim that under applicable law the Interior Department is barred --- forever --- from identifying and protecting wild land the way it has for nearly 30 years.

Adding to it often has been a struggle.

But if the Bush argument prevails, say conservationists and many Democratic members of Congress, much of America's unprotected wild heritage would be lost to development.

Norton said the changes were necessary to restore balance to the way federal lands would be managed by ensuring that wilderness would not take primacy over other important uses such as energy development.

The Bush policy was set forth in the April 2003 settlement of a lawsuit brought by Utah against the Clinton administration.

Utah had lost that case in federal appeals court in 1998 but was allowed to file an amended complaint five years later.

That agenda was spelled out by the state's lead lawyer in a memo shortly before the settlement with the Bush administration.

The memo was obtained recently by environmental lawyers Ted Zukoski of Earthjustice and Leslie Jones of the Wilderness Society through Freedom of Information Act litigation.

The environmentalists, who were kept out of the settlement talks, say the state got what it wanted, and so did wilderness protection opponents everywhere.

The outcome, which could affect the course of wilderness policy for years to come, may hinge on an interpretation of the Federal Land Policy Management Act.

The court in 1998 ruled that the "plain language" of the act required the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management to continually review land under its control to see if it merited wilderness protection.

In the meantime, Norton is moving ahead with new plans for proposed wilderness areas, including 43,600 acres in western Colorado that she has opened to oil and gas leasing.

Scarlett said in an interview that the BLM, as part of its land-use planning responsibilities, could still look for areas with wilderness character.

The Clinton administration inflamed the antiwilderness sentiment in 1996 by protecting 1.7 million acres as part of a new Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

The same year, Bruce Babbitt, Interior secretary under Clinton, renewed surveys of Utah lands with wilderness potential after numerous complaints that earlier surveys were faulty.

Five years later, with the Bush administration in office, state officials revived their case in an amended complaint in Judge Benson's court in Salt Lake City.

Settlement papers were filed late Friday, April 11, at the federal courthouse in Salt Lake City.

The judge approved the settlement the following Monday afternoon without a hearing.

Lawyers for the Bush administration acknowledge they are taking a position diametrically opposite from the one advanced by the Clinton administration when the case first came before the 10th Circuit Court in 1998.

"The settlement is not invalid merely because it represents a change from BLM's prior interpretations," Justice Department attorneys Thomas L. Sansonetti and Todd S. Aagard said in a brief.

"Agencies have the inherent authority to change their position to conform to applicable law."

The government lawyers also said that "by resolving a long-standing and contentious dispute with Utah, the settlement promoted a more cooperative relationship with the state, an outcome with considerable value to the BLM."

Former Clinton administration officials contend that the policy changes reflect more than a difference of opinion over land-management law.

"This settlement reeks of hostility to wilderness, to the whole idea of taking any steps to protect wild land in its natural condition," said John Leshy, the chief lawyer for the Interior Department under Clinton.

Martha Marks, president of REPAmerica, a Republican environmental organization, has also spoken out against the administration's wilderness policies, including the Utah settlement.

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Summarized by Copernic Summarizer


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