National Forest Legal News Blog


Utah Counties File Lawsuit Over BLM Wilderness Policy

Posted by nationalforestlawblog on March 31, 2011 at 9:10 PM

The New York Times reports:

A new Interior Department wilderness policy fails to allow coordination with local counties, breaks the terms of a 2003 settlement and threatens the continued production of oil and natural gas on public lands, according to a lawsuit filed yesterday by Utah counties against the federal government.

The legal attack is the first, but likely not the last, to challenge a secretarial "wild lands" order finalized last month that requires the Bureau of Land Management to take stock of wilderness-quality lands and consider barring activities that would impair sensitive habitats, archaeological resources or natural solitude.

John Swallow, Utah's chief deputy attorney general, yesterday told Greenwire that the state intends to file its own lawsuit challenging the BLM policy in the next couple of weeks.

Yesterday's complaint from Uintah County and the Utah Association of Counties claims Interior is exceeding its authority by establishing wilderness protections without the consent of Congress.

The 97-page complaint (pdf) accuses Interior of breaking the terms of a settlement reached in 2003 between then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton and former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt (R), which ordered BLM to abandon a wilderness inventory initiated under the Clinton administration.

The lawsuit also alleges that top Interior officials had instructed regional BLM managers to reject nominations from oil and gas firms to lease lands that conservationists have proposed for protections under the "America's Red Rock Wilderness Act."

The Red Rock bill, which is opposed by the Utah delegation, seeks to designate as wilderness 9.4 million acres of federal land, including parts of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and areas adjacent to Capitol Reef National Park, Canyonlands National Park and the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

Lastly, the complaint charges Interior for using the wild lands order to subvert several resource management plans completed under the George W. Bush administration, which took several years to complete and involved broad input from the state and counties.

A BLM spokesman last night declined to comment on the complaint.

"The counties with BLM lands that are affected by this order have all gone to careful lengths to devise a plan for managing these lands," said Mark Ward, an attorney for Utah counties.

Ward said the wild lands policy flouts provisions of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) directing BLM to manage its lands consistent with local plans. Instead, BLM has implemented "de facto" bans on oil and gas drilling and other multiple uses in areas proposed for wilderness protection, plaintiffs contend.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar over the past months has repeatedly pointed to separate provisions of FLPMA and a ruling by a federal appeals court that require the agency to keep a working inventory of wilderness lands and to manage some of those lands in their "natural state."

The lawsuit also takes a swipe at a set of oil and gas leasing plans recently completed as part of energy reforms BLM finalized last May that seek to head off future conflicts over public lands.

In January, BLM Director Bob Abbey approved six so-called "master leasing plans" covering 3.9 million acres in Utah that conservation groups say will ensure continued development but also safeguard hunting, fishing and other important uses of public lands.

But while the Utah leasing programs were finalized in early February, the BLM state director did not notify the counties until Monday afternoon this week, a day before the plaintiffs' amended complaint was due, the lawsuit contends.

"That was the result of secret negotiations by groups that sued BLM, under the cloak of settling [a separate] lawsuit," Ward said. "They proceeded to force these master leasing plans," which conform less with the existing resource management plans and more with the Red Rock bill, Ward said.

The lawsuit comes amid heated criticism from mostly Western Republican members of Congress, three Western governors, grazing groups and other public lands users.

That criticism has been countered by strong support from most Democratic lawmakers, several dozen local elected officials in Western states, conservation groups, hunters and outfitters.

Flawed arguments?

Conservation groups that support the wild lands policy said the counties' claims fall on shaky legal grounds.

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