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Know the West



The 2003 wilderness settlement between Interior Secretary Gale Norton and then-Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt may be on the ropes (HCN, 4/28/03: Wilderness takes a massive hit). The settlement eliminated protection for 2.6 million acres of potential wilderness in Utah and barred the BLM from proposing any new land for wilderness designation without congressional approval. But in early August, the federal district judge who originally approved the settlement rescinded that approval. Judge Dee Benson expressed concern that future presidential administrations could be legally bound by what amounted to a Bush administration policy change. On Sept. 26, Benson will hear arguments about the underlying legality of the settlement..

New Mexico's Otero Mesa is back on the oil-and-gas auction block. In July, the Harvey E. Yates Co. leased 1,600 acres on the mesa for $2 per acre, the minimum bid allowed under federal law (HCN, 3/7/05: Whose rules rule on Otero Mesa?). The parcel is the first lease the BLM has offered on Otero Mesa sinced 1997, and is part of an area that New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, D, had asked the agency to withdraw from leasing. But Yates can't drill until the BLM resolves a lawsuit from the state of New Mexico challenging the agency's drilling plans for the mesa.

And in the fishy science category — Last fall, 19 members of Congress called for an investigation into charges that the NOAA Fisheries Services doctored a "biological opinion." The revised opinion concluded that the government's plan for pumping water from the San Francisco Bay Delta to farms would not harm endangered salmon and steelhead (HCN, 12/20/04: Fisheries agency rewards a loyal bureaucrat). This July, the commerce department's inspector general reported that James Lecky, then a NOAA Fisheries assistant regional administrator, "circumvented key internal controls established to ensure the integrity of the biological opinion." Lecky was promoted to NOAA headquarters last October; NOAA Fisheries says it will seek outside review of the science behind the biological opinion.