Utah litigants ask court to consolidate 'wild lands' cases

Posted: Aug 10, 2011

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The state of Utah and its counties are asking a federal judge in Salt Lake City to combine separate lawsuits filed this spring seeking to halt the Interior Department's plan to inventory roadless lands and consider protecting some of them in their natural state.

Utah counties brought the first suit in late March, arguing that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's December 2010 "wild lands" order 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 (Greenwire, March 23).

Utah filed a similar complaint a month later alleging the order creates "de facto" federal wilderness areas without proper review and legal authority (E&ENews PM, April 29).

Attorneys for Utah counties said the cases challenge the same Bureau of Land Management actions, involve many of the same parties and explore many of the same legal arguments.

A separate filing in the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah asked that federal defendants be given until July 8 to file responses in the case. BLM's initial response to the county complaint was due last Friday.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Wilderness Society and Sierra Club have intervened in the county case in support of the wild lands order, which they say is necessary to protect opportunities in the West to hunt, fish and recreate on public lands and inform lawmakers of which areas merit potential wilderness designations.

Critics of Salazar's plan, including most Republican lawmakers, say it would have a chilling effect on oil and gas companies and off-highway vehicles users that depend on public lands access to sustain rural economies.

Congress' stopgap funding bill for fiscal 2011 barred BLM from implementing the order until October. But Salazar and wilderness advocates have emphasized that the agency is still legally obligated to inventory wilderness-quality lands.

Barrasso, McCarthy tout wilderness release bill

Republican lawmakers in both chambers today also championed legislation that would permanently overturn the wild lands order while releasing more than 40 million acres of BLM and Forest Service lands into multiple uses that could include motorized recreation, timber harvests or mineral exploration.

The bill sponsors, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), today said the lands -- which include BLM wilderness study areas and Forest Service inventoried roadless lands -- are being managed as wilderness even though the agencies have said they do not deserve wilderness protections.

Congress' inaction has stifled multiple uses including grazing, recreation tourism and energy exploration, they said in an op-ed in today's Roll Call.

"Congress' lax approach to these recommendations means that millions of acres of public land across our country remain in limbo; off-limits to multiple use and set apart from the local planning process," the lawmakers said.

Conservation groups have attacked the legislation as the largest assault on public lands in at least a generation and have warned it would stifle debate over new wilderness additions.

"These proposals fly in the face of values Americans hold dear with respect to the stewardship of our American lands," said Paul Spitler, national wilderness campaigns associate director for the Wilderness Society. "It also flies in the face of nearly 50 years of legislation designating new wilderness areas."

A spokeswoman for a House Natural Resources subcommittee said McCarthy's bill will not likely receive a hearing before the August recess. Barrasso's bill faces higher hurdles in the Democratic-controlled Senate, where leaders are not expected to support lifting protections on such a large amount of land.



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