Conservation Groups Challenge Utah Pact Dismissing Wilderness

Conservation Groups Challenge Utah Pact Dismissing Wilderness

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Conservation groups filed notice Friday that they will ask a federal appeals court to overturn the deal that Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt made with Interior Secretary Gale Norton dropping wilderness protections from nearly 6 million acres of federal land in Utah.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and nine other groups say Norton capitulated to a 6-year-old Utah lawsuit that had no merit.

In the settlement, approved by Chief U.S. District Judge Dee Benson of Utah, the Interior Department and its Bureau of Land Management said they would no longer manage potential wilderness areas to preserve their wilderness character while waiting for Congress to decide whether to formally declare them as wilderness.

The public interest law firm Earthjustice, representing 10 conservation groups, filed notice late Friday that it would ask the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver to overturn that settlement.

Earthjustice was not a party to the original lawsuit or the settlement, but now is an intervener.

The disputed settlement withdrew protections from Utah lands preserved as wilderness study areas since October 1993. It also reversed an order signed by former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, and it affects all BLM lands throughout the West.

The Interior Department and BLM also said they "will not establish, manage or treat public lands" as new wilderness study areas "absent congressional authorization." That reverses a tradition that potential wilderness areas would be managed as wilderness until Congress decides otherwise. Only Congress can create a wilderness area.

The change could open redrock canyons and other prized lands in Utah to possible grazing, mining, logging and road-building. It also weakened protections for BLM lands in other states.

And it shifts the balance of power in the congressional debate over wilderness. As long as wilderness study areas were protected pending a final vote, wilderness advocates had little reason to compromise with opponents to reach that vote. If the settlement stands, that inertia could shift to the side of wilderness opponents.

"This renunciation turns back 20 to 30 years of common understanding of what the law provides," said Heidi McIntosh, an attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "The BLM has authority to identify wilderness lands and protect them until Congress can get around to voting."

That was disputed Friday by spokesmen for Leavitt and Norton.

"Governor Leavitt supports more wilderness in this state, even for these areas withdrawn, but it has to be done by Congress," said Leavitt spokeswoman Natalie Gochnour.

Norton communications chief Eric Ruff said the former administration arbitrarily extended BLM's authority to designate wilderness study areas after that power expired in 1991.

"Under the Clinton administration, anyone could walk in off the street and tell BLM, `We think this area ought to be set aside for wilderness. ... Well, that's in conflict with the law," Ruff said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Sorenson, who signed the settlement on behalf of the Interior Department, said the Justice Department would fight Earthjustice's appeal.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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