Norton heeded senators in wilderness decision

Dennis Webb
GSPI News Editor

Colorado politicians’ handprints are all over a new policy suspending reviews of additional lands for possible wilderness designation within the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, including on the Roan Plateau.

Colorado’s two U.S. senators signed a letter calling for the policy, which caps the amount of BLM land eligible for wilderness nationwide at 22.8 million acres.

The letter was sent to U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton, a former Colorado attorney general. The Interior Department, which oversees the BLM, announced the policy April 11, as a means of settling a lawsuit in Utah over the BLM’s wilderness inventory process.

The policy appears to directly affect wilderness consideration for the Roan Plateau northwest of Rifle, Castle Peak in northern Eagle County, and South Shale Ridge north of De Beque.

One Roan Plateau management alternative being considered by BLM, and supported by several local governments, proposes three new wilderness area on the plateau and its surrounding cliffs.

Other BLM wilderness proposals have come from citizens, and been included in wilderness legislation proposed by U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette of Denver.

In addition to some 800,000 acres originally designated as BLM wilderness study areas in Colorado, some citizen groups contend another 800,000 qualify for protection, including many places the BLM has since agreed have wilderness values.

DeGette is a Democrat. Norton, a Bush appointee, and Colorado’s U.S. senators, Wayne Allard and Ben Nighthorse Campbell, are Republicans.

Environmentalists contend the Bush administration is saying it will never again consider wilderness protection for any BLM lands.

“The BLM is constantly considering developing additional land for oil and gas production, yet is now saying `no’ to any more protection for wilderness and the outstanding wildlife and backcountry recreation values it provides,” said Suzanne Jones, assistant regional director for The Wilderness Society in Denver.

Two legal views

Jones and others argue that the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) requires the BLM to maintain “on a continuing basis” an inventory of public lands, giving priority to areas of critical environmental concern.

Allard, Campbell and 12 other U.S. senators read the same law entirely differently.

In an April 9 letter to Norton, they asked that the BLM suspend any new wilderness reviews other than those specifically directed by Congress.

They argue that BLM has no authority to consider wilderness study areas beyond those proposed in 1991 under an initial inventory of lands required under FLPMA.

The senators also argue that the Wilderness Act of 1964 envisioned a system of 60 million acres, but already 107 million acres of wilderness have been created – more acreage altogether than California.

“Further wilderness review serves no beneficial purpose and frustrates current efforts to identify and open key areas on public lands for energy production, resolve access problems or the legitimate use of public lands for other than wilderness purposes, including recreation uses,” the senators wrote.

The BLM’s initial inventory identified 22.8 million acres of land for consideration as wilderness. Of that, it recommended Congress designate 9.6 million acres as wilderness.

To date, Congress has designated 6.5 million, and another 15.5 million acres are being managed as wilderness until final decisions are made.

Responding to the senators’ letter, Norton wrote that the BLM plans no changes in managing the 15.5 million acres of potential wilderness. She has urged Congress to “continue its efforts to designate appropriate lands as wilderness areas,” she noted in her letter.

However, heeding the wishes of the 14 senators, she ordered BLM to suspend review of new wilderness areas other than those listed in the 1991 inventory or specifically directed by Congress.

“We have agreed to take this action pursuant to the settlement of the litigation with the state of Utah,” Norton wrote.

That settlement also dropped wilderness protection for about 3 million acres of BLM land in Utah.

Environmentalists complain that suspending wilderness land inventories makes it impossible for the BLM to act on new information on proposed wilderness areas.

`Capricious’ decision?

They say the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals threw out nearly all of the 1996 Utah suit years ago. Yet the Bush administration settled the suit only two weeks after Utah re-filed it, without seeking public comment.

In a letter, DeGette accused Norton of making a “capricious decision” about BLM wilderness policy, and of forming “major federal land management policy behind closed doors.”

Environmentalists say the Utah suit settlement is part of a larger “sue and settle” policy by the Bush administration, under which it is quietly reshaping environmental policy without the public or Congress being involved.

John Wright, a spokesman for the U.S. Interior Department, which oversees BLM, said the department is simply making BLM practices conform with the law.

Part of this effort involves Norton ordering the BLM to no longer abide by a so-called “Wilderness Handbook,” which directed local BLM offices to consider managing wilderness-caliber areas as wilderness even if they weren’t part of the 1991 inventory process.

That handbook was modeled after BLM policy in Colorado, and was adopted nationwide in the final days of the Clinton administration.

John Wright, an Interior Department spokesman, said BLM’s new wilderness policy doesn’t mean additional lands can’t be considered for protection in other ways.

“The BLM will continue to review the land under its jurisdiction in an effort to identify those areas that may contain wilderness characteristics,” he said. “These can be protected by imposing a variety of designations available to BLM land managers.”

Contact Dennis Webb: 945-8515, ext. 516

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Glenwood Springs and Garfield County make the Post Independent’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.