Utah wades into Wild Lands dispute

May 6, 2011

Turbulence surrounding Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar’s controversial Wild Lands policy only seems to be increasing, and now the big dogs are beginning to enter the fray. On April 29, the state of Utah announced that it is filing suit in federal court with the object of nullifying Salazar’s Secretarial Order 3310, which brought the Wild Lands policy into being.

The suit was filed by the office of Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff in the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah in Salt Lake City. On the same day, Alaska submitted a motion to the court to be granted amicus status in the case.

The state of Utah follows Uinta County, UT, and the Utah Association of Counties, which jointly filed suit against the Wild Lands policy on March 22.

In a press release, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said that the new Wild Lands policy would make null and void years of extensive planning and cooperation that went into drawing up local Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Resource Management Plans (RMPs), which are the product of a public input process mandated by the Federal Land Policy Management Act (FLPMA).

"The Department of Interior sought no input from me—nor any other governor—before they issued this order," said Herbert. "The Order undid years of collaborative and costly work. State and county officials, environmental organizations, natural resources industries, citizens, and local Bureau of Land Management offices have labored to create Resource Management Plans—the legal and proper way to determine the designation and use of our public lands. This order circumvents that system, and congressional authority, to designate lands by bureaucratic fiat."

Secretarial Order 3310 was made public on Dec. 22, 2010, as Congress was adjourning for Christmas recess. The policy instructs BLM to protect almost all lands under its jurisdiction having wilderness "characteristics" according to a non-impairment standard under the designation of "Wild Lands." Such lands can be managed according to the same restrictive management practices as congressionally-designated wilderness areas, but without the consent of Congress. Opponents of Wild Lands policy argue that the Order usurps the authority of Congress, as only Congress is authorized to create wilderness. Wild Lands, they argue, are administratively created, and differ from wilderness in name only.

The lawsuit will ask the court to annul the Wild Lands Order, as well as withdraw all BLM manuals that instruct agency how to implement the policy. It will further request reinstatement of all existing RMPs that may have been altered or suspended by the policy.

Among other reasons, the complaint alleges that the Wild Lands Order is illegal because it violates the process of land use planning as specified in FLPMA and is also in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act because no environmental impact statement was developed to assess the impact of the policy.

In addition to this recent spate of lawsuits, the Wild Lands policy was temporarily stripped of funding by an appropriations rider included in the continuing resolution—a federal funding bill—passed in Congress last month. The rider stipulated that "[N]one of the funds made available by this division or any other Act may be used to implement, administer, or enforce Secretarial Order No. 3310." The rider prohibits BLM from funding the Wild Lands policy until October. At that time, BLM will be free to begin funding the Wild Lands policy unless more legislation is passed.

By throwing its hat into the ring, Utah sets a precedent for other western states that have vocally denounced Salazar’s policy, both on the grounds that it is illegal and that it could cripple local economies by impacting both gas and oil development and the ranching industry. With Alaska already petitioning for amicus status, Wyoming and Idaho are perhaps the next most likely candidates for joining the legal action. Back in January, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead and Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter individually sent letters of protest to Salazar indicating their strong opposition to the policy and requesting that he rescind the Order immediately.

The Wild Lands policy "ignores the contribution of Wyoming’s natural resources to the nation’s economic sustainability," wrote Mead. "It ignores the revenues our state and local governments depend on from mineral and other development. It fails to address the impact to ranchers, recreationalists, and all the others who rely on the lands for so many different reasons."

In addition to petitioning Salazar, Otter also testified against the Wild Lands policy at a March 1 hearing held by the House Committee on Natural Resources.

Not surprisingly, other western lawmakers have weighed in on lawsuit. In a press release issued on his website, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-UT, registered his approval of Herbert’s move to sue the administration, noting that there is a need to balance wilderness protection with the economic well being of rural communities.

"I commend the governor and attorney general of the state of Utah for leading the court battle against a Wild Lands policy that has … detrimental effects on developing Utah’s natural resources," stated Hatch. "With a majority of land in Utah owned by the federal government, the needs of local communities must be balanced with the need to preserve and protect areas that truly have wilderness characteristics."

Hatch also added that he is in the process of developing legislation that will release certain federal lands which are not officially Wilderness Areas from wilderness protections, as well as providing guidance "that underscores that it is the responsibility of Congress to designate wilderness areas, and not the administration."

The Wild Lands policy remains extremely popular with wilderness activists who argue that the policy is necessary to protect the West’s last pristine spaces, and restores balance to the BLM’s management of the multiple uses that it oversees. According to a statement by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Wild Lands policy "gives wilderness a rightful place as an equal among the range of other resources BLM must manage and protect, and it’s a critical first step towards ensuring the permanent protection of the last remaining wild lands in the West." — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent