Bush Guidelines Discard Wilderness Quality Public Lands

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, September 30, 2003 (ENS) - The Bush administration issued new policy guidance on Monday that limits the ability of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to inventory or protect wilderness quality lands. The guidelines formalize a controversial settlement brokered in April by Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Utah Governor Mike Leavitt, a deal critics say reverses decades of wilderness policy and puts the interests of drilling, mining, logging and road construction ahead of the public interest.

The guidelines distributed to BLM state offices on Monday will allow land managers to identify and preserve the natural character of BLM lands within land management plans, administration officials say. But they add that the guidelines will ensure that such decisions are balanced in the context of local needs and the multiple uses allowed on BLM land, such as mining, oil and gas development, timber, grazing and recreation.

The court settlement and the administration's guidelines for implementation "level the agency's multiple use playing field," said BLM spokesperson Celia Boddington.

Critics contend that the policy does the exact opposite and say the ultimate effect removes BLM's consideration of the value of wilderness in its land management decisions.

For three decades, BLM land managers considered the value of wilderness on the same level as other land uses - the new guidelines unbalance that equation, environmentalists say.


High Uinta Wilderness in Utah (Photo by Frank Jensen courtesy Utah Division of Travel Development)
The administration's policy "rolls back more than a quarter century of settled law and policy," said Ted Zukoski, an attorney with the environmental law firm Earthjustice, which is challenging the settlement brokered by Norton and Leavitt in April.

The policy laid out in the settlement and the BLM guidelines effectively order the agency to never again look for or protect wilderness lands, Zukoski says, and is the reversal of a policy supported by the administration of Republican President Ronald Reagan and every other Interior Secretary from 1976 to the present.

"The Bush administration has effectively put a freeze on important protections for wilderness nationwide," says Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. "Americans support continued protection for remaining swaths of wilderness, not a top down directive that biases public lands decisions in favor of extractive industries."

At the center of the controversy is the settlement announced in April by Norton and Leavitt - who is now the administration's nominee to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Environmentalists and some Democrats have criticized the settlement as a backroom deal that ignored the wishes of the public.

The deal settled a lawsuit brought by the state of Utah first filed in 1996 - the state and the Utah Association of Counties sued the BLM over its 1999 inventory of lands that qualify for wilderness protection. That inventory identified three million more acres in Utah that qualified for wilderness protection than had been identified by previous inventory.

Such a wilderness designation prohibits development and the use of motorized off-road vehicles.

Although the legal case was largely rejected by the courts, the state renewed its challenge in March, and the Bush administration brokered a settlement and disallowed the use of the 1999 statewide BLM reinventory of Utah's public lands.

The settlement details that the BLM did not have authority to designate lands as wilderness that had not been identified with such potential prior to 1993 - a condition disputed by critics.


Solar cell arrays near Lake Powell, Utah (Photo by Warren Gretz courtesy NREL)
The deal brokered by Norton and Leavitt has implications far beyond Utah. The settlement revoked BLM's authority to conduct wilderness inventories and to establish new Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) in any state.

Wilderness Study Areas are lands that meet criteria for wilderness characteristics and are managed to preserve those values until Congress designates the areas as wilderness or releases the areas for non-wilderness management.

In addition, the settlement withdrew the Wilderness Inventory Handbook - a set of guidelines for BLM managers to assess wilderness protections for federal lands affected by proposed resource development.

By throwing out the Wilderness Inventory Handbook, the administration left BLM land managers without formal guidance on how to inventory and protect wilderness quality lands. That vacuum has now been filled by the new guidelines issued Monday.

Bush administration officials are quick to point out that the settlement does not affect the 23 million acres of BLM land already designated as wilderness or identified as Wilderness Study Areas. It also does not affect the 89 million acres of BLM land in Alaska.

But the guidelines outline the core provisions of the settlement - they bar BLM land managers from designating additional lands as Wilderness Study Areas and prohibit the agency from allocating additional lands for wilderness protection.

Environmentalists are overstating the impact of the settlement and the new guidelines, Boddington said, because it is still Congress - not the BLM - that ultimately decides which lands to protect as wilderness.

That explanation does not sit well with environmentalists, who believe that the BLM has not properly inventoried the 262 million surface acres across 11 Western states under its authority.

There are more than 23 million acres worthy of protection, they say, but now the BLM has given up responsibility for identifying and safeguarding these wild places - leaving Congress with little guidance as to what merits formal protection.

"First the Bush administration removed the tools from the toolbox which provides federal land managers with the ability to manage our public lands for multiple uses," said Mike Matz, executive director of the Campaign for America's Wilderness. "Now it has thrown the toolbox into the trash."