The door closes on new BLM wilderness proposals

For years, wilderness groups have been hounding the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to continue to identify lands worthy of formal protection as wilderness. An initial round of wilderness inventories, completed in 1991, led to protection of 6.5 million acres of BLM wilderness. But citizens' wilderness groups argued that substantial areas of potential wilderness were overlooked. In Utah, for instance, the original BLM inventory identified 3.2 million acres which met Wilderness Act criteria - areas larger than 5,000 acres with "outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation." But the Utah Wilderness Coalition argued that the true number was closer to 9 million acres and - under the direction of Clinton-era Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt - the BLM re-inventoried its Utah lands, ultimately identifying an additional 2.6 million acres eligible for protection.

But on April 11, the BLM stepped back in time. The Department of the Interior settled a lawsuit with the state of Utah, eliminating the 2.6 million acres of potential wilderness identified during the 1990s. Not only that, but Interior also agreed to prohibit the BLM from conducting further wilderness inventories or designating new "wilderness study areas" without explicit congressional direction - a policy the Interior Department intends to extend across the West.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton outlined the new policy in letters sent the same day to Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah. It effectively knocks tens of millions of acres out of the running for wilderness protection - and it will likely open up wildlands to development just as the BLM implements a new industry-friendly policy for oil and gas drilling on its lands.

"You have to understand just how radical a proposition this is," says Jim Angell, an attorney for Earthjustice, the nonprofit law firm that represents several wilderness groups. "What they're saying is: Those wilderness inventories that got done, for the most part, under Reagan - and were deeply flawed and highly political back then - are what we're stuck with. BLM can't even re-inventory its own lands to see if they're eligible for wilderness. They have to turn a blind eye to those lands and continue to develop them."

A long battle

The 1964 Wilderness Act directed the U.S. Forest Service to identify forestlands that might qualify for protection as wilderness. But it wasn't until 1976, with the passage of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), that the same mandate was extended to the BLM. FLPMA required BLM to complete a one-shot, nationwide inventory of eligible wilderness by 1991. As a result, Congress formally protected 6.5 million acres of BLM land as wilderness, while another 15.5 million acres were protected as wilderness study areas for future consideration.

But the BLM's responsibility didn't end there. Federal law requires the agency to maintain an ongoing inventory of potential wilderness. That opened a window of opportunity to wilderness groups, which argued the agency's initial surveys were far from complete. After years of on-the-ground surveys by citizens, the groups took their findings to the BLM and urged the agency to consider more areas for protection.

"It's been very common practice for the BLM to recognize that the first inventories that were done in the mid- to late-'80s, were not entirely accurate," says Heidi McIntosh of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. Interior Secretary Babbitt recognized this and in 1996, he called for the re-inventory of BLM land in Utah, which ultimately identified 2.6 million more acres of potential wilderness.

The agency did a similar thing in Colorado. In 1996, the Colorado Environmental Coalition pushed the BLM to re-evaluate the Vermillion Basin, an oil-and-gas hotspot in the far northwest corner of the state that was being eyed for development by the Marathon Oil Company (HCN, 8/5/02: Land plan attracts an anti-grazing gorilla).

"We were making the case that BLM shouldn't allow any wilderness-damaging activities until (it) has a chance to take a second look," says Jeff Widen of the Colorado Environmental Coalition. And the BLM agreed, identifying some 600,000 acres of land - not only in the Vermillion Basin, but around the state - to protect as wilderness study areas until Congress could consider them for formal wilderness designation.

These re-evaluations were not without controversy. In 1996, the state of Utah sued Interior to invalidate Babbitt's new survey. The state abandoned the suit after an appeals court upheld the BLM's authority to re-inventory wilderness. But this March, Utah refiled, and just two weeks later - on April 11 - the state and the Interior Department announced that they had reached a settlement.

"The timing of the suit is incredible," says Widen. "A number of state-based wilderness groups tried to intervene, and before the judge ever even ruled, Interior just came out of the blue and settled this thing." The settlement follows a Bush administration pattern of inviting lawsuits that could weaken environmental protection and then settling them out of court (HCN, 10/14/02: Wildlife Service bows to home builders).

The end of wilderness?

The new policy could demolish efforts for more wilderness protection - and it is likely to spread quickly region-wide.

The Utah settlement came on the heels of two March letters to Norton from Republican senators and congressmen in Utah, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, California and Montana, asking that "the Bureau of Land Management immediately suspend any new wilderness reviews of public lands other than reviews specifically directed by an Act of Congress." In her April 11 letters to Senators Bennett and Domenici, Secretary Norton made it clear that the invalidation of wilderness proposed after 1991 would extend across the West.

"It's pretty clear that what we're going to see BLM start doing pretty quick is start leasing lands (for oil and gas development) that are in citizens' wilderness inventories," says Ken Rait of the Campaign for America's Wilderness. In Colorado, the first land on the block could be the Vermillion Basin and the energy-rich Roan Plateau near Rifle. In Utah, it's the area around Moab as well as the Book Cliffs outside of Green River, which have long been eyed by oil and gas companies.

The Arizona Wilderness Coalition's just-released, million-acre wilderness proposal for the remote Arizona Strip, north of the Grand Canyon, is also on the rocks, and the new policy affects wilderness efforts in California, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon and Idaho, as well.

Wilderness groups are still pondering their response to the move, but a lawsuit seems likely. Says Widen, "BLM didn't say to the oil and gas industry, 'You applied for drilling permits back in 1980-whatever, so you had your chance.' "

"This is a major issue for the future of the BLM and how it will manage its lands in the 21st century," says The Wilderness Society's Dave Alberswerth. "It's wrong for the administration to say, 'We're never going to do wilderness again.' "

Matt Jenkins is an assistant editor for High Country News.

    You can contact ...

    U.S. Department of the Interior, John Wright, 202/208-6416,www.doi.gov;

    The Wilderness Society, Dave Alberswerth, 202/833-2300, www.wilderness.org;

    Campaign for America's Wilderness, Doug Scott, 206/342-9212, www.leaveitwild.org.