The idea of protected wilderness is a uniquely American invention, but one the Bush administration seems not to want to embrace -- which is both bad news and good news for conservationists.
Last week, the Department of the Interior disclosed a legal settlement with the State of Utah that effectively forecloses establishment of new wilderness on lands managed by the department's Bureau of Land Management.
In a letter to Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., announcing the settlement, the administration said it will "suspend review of new wilderness areas other than those already identified through statute" or already being managed as wilderness.
As you might guess, for conservationists involved in the wilderness movement, this new policy is a very big deal. For one thing, it could free up a lot of federal acreage in Western states for mineral development.
Since the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964, about 106 million acres of U.S. public lands have been set aside as federally protected wilderness. Wilderness designation is the strictest form of protection available on public lands. No roads or permanent structures are allowed, no motor vehicles, and no extractive industries -- like logging, mining, or oil and gas drilling -- can operate.
Most of the lands remaining that might be suitable for wilderness designation are managed by the BLM. In all, the agency is in charge of about 262 million acres in Alaska and the lower 48 states. Only about 6.5 million of those have been designated as wilderness so far.
BLM also has "multiple use" lands which are available for lots of more-or-less productive activities. They are grazed by cattle, mined by coal companies, and leased for oil and gas exploration. But the 1978 Federal Land Policy and Management Act required the agency to take inventory of the property for wilderness suitability. The inventories were done and redone, through several administrations of both parties.
Because of the economic uses to which BLM acreage is often put, and because the lands comprise such a large percentage of the area of many Western states, wilderness designations are controversial there, especially in Utah and Idaho. In 1998, Utah filed a lawsuit challenging BLM's wilderness inventory. Most of the lawsuit originally was dismissed. It lay dormant until revived in mid-April 2003, when the state filed an amended complaint and Interior settled, agreeing not to inventory any more potential BLM wilderness areas -- not just in Utah but throughout the Western states.
"Their attitude is, 'We're never going to designate another wilderness study area on the public lands, no matter what the public wants,'" Dave Albersworth, BLM program director at the Wilderness Society, told United Press International's Blue Planet.
Jim Angell, an attorney with the environmental group EarthJustice, has filed an intervention in the case and is trying to get the settlement reversed.
"We're challenging it. They are saying any area that BLM didn't identify as potential wilderness in 1991 can't become wilderness. That inventory was carried out by the Reagan administration and was deeply flawed," he said.
The amount of BLM lands considered suitable for wilderness varies wildly, depending on who is evaluating them. In Wyoming, for instance, in the 1991 inventory, BLM originally identified about 240,000 acres of qualified lands, but subsequently adopted wilderness management for 577,000 acres -- after the 1991 cutoff. A citizens proposal identifies a little more than 1 million acres of suitable BLM wilderness.
In Utah, conservationists argue there are 9.3 million acres of suitable wilderness, while BLM officials maintained 2.6 million acres were suitable. The lawsuit settlement removes that 2.6 million acres from formal wilderness consideration.
Interior Department spokesman John Wright said, however, that although Interior won't formally designate wilderness areas, BLM still can protect the lands as part of the land-management process.
"To say that they won't consider protecting those areas, that's wrong," Wright told UPI. "They will not be named wilderness. ... Does the settlement eliminate or reduce the protection for any wilderness study area? The answer to that would be, 'No.'"
EarthJustice's Angell said, however, the idea that the Bush administration would leave the areas untouched is farfetched.
"They don't promise to protect it," he told UPI. "They just say they can. That shouldn't give anyone any comfort. They didn't go to all this trouble so they can protect these areas. They went to all this trouble to develop these areas. That's going to be the consequence if the courts don't overturn it."
Furthermore, the settlement illustrates a disturbing trend in the administration's handling of controversial issues.
"This fits (an administration) pattern we've seen of using lawsuits to go behind closed doors and arrange sweetheart settlements that effectively change the law," Angell said. "That's exactly what happened here. This is a lawsuit that the 10th Circuit had already dismissed almost all of. Then BLM and the state of Utah had a series of secret meetings that cooked up a settlement that changes the law, even though the 10th Circuit had already said the case couldn't be heard by the court."
Wright disagreed. "We don't invent the mission, and we don't change the law," he said. "We might interpret the law."
He noted any change in management of BLM lands requires a management plan, a process with mandatory provisions for extensive public input.
Claire Moseley, executive director of Public Lands Advocacy, a group that works for greater oil and gas company access to public lands, told UPI the settlement means "They are not closing them off, (but) I don't know if I would call it opening them up. ... We're pleased about it because the decision takes into account the intent of FLPMA. We're pleased that areas found not to qualify will be returned to multiple use."
Moseley said some oil and gas leases that had been delayed now might be issued.
This controversy arises at a time when the wilderness advocacy movement is enjoying a renewal around the country. In 2000, such groups held a major organizational meeting and set goals for a revival of protection efforts.
"There are more state and local campaigns to protect wilderness than there ever have been before," said Michael Carroll of the Wilderness Society.
These efforts have occurred in some unconventional places, such as Pennsylvania's Allegheny National Forest. Wilderness campaigns also have been remarkably successful in Nevada, which is not usually thought of as particularly environmentally friendly.
Earlier, Carroll said, "You had the Utah fight. It seemed a lot of wilderness advocates from Illinois, say, were focused on Utah. But now they have gone back and focused on Illinois. People in the smaller Eastern states are focusing on their own back yards."