America’s Wilderness at Risk
In Arizona and around the nation, the Bush Administration has launched a multi-pronged assault on America’s wilderness heritage. Some of our most special places are in jeopardy like never before: places that Arizona’s citizens are working hard to protect may never even have the chance to be considered by Congress for wilderness designation.
The bottom line: Under the Administration’s new policies, our nation will lose millions of acres of potential wilderness to commercial interests instead of preserving them for future generations.
Arizona is no exception. Bush’s wilderness attacks could impact the sweeping terrain in Vermilion Cliffs and Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monuments; the verdant slopes of Sonoran Desert and Ironwood Forest National Monuments; and the cool, plunging depths of the Agua Fria River and its canyon. With development pressures outside these national monuments, what will become of the wildlife that depends on these special places for survival if they are carved up with roads, mined, and otherwise destroyed?
Read more about the various threats to your wilderness by clicking on these links…
On April 11, in a late-night settlement with the state of Utah, Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton renounced the long-standing wilderness review process of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). With this landmark ‘sweetheart’ deal impacting all states across the West, the Bush Administration put tens of millions of acres of unprotected wild lands at risk of development by commercial interests. Simultaneously, Secretary Norton instructed the BLM in Alaska to cease wilderness reviews in its resource management plans and said wilderness can be considered with broad support of Alaska elected officials. These actions jeopardize years of careful wilderness study by the Arizona Wilderness Coalition and other volunteer groups – and even BLM field staff – to document and recommend potential wilderness areas.
The settlement, heralded by a May, 4 2003 New York Times editorial as the “End of Wilderness,” prevents the BLM from inventorying and recommending to Congress any of its lands for wilderness designation. The administration’s decision to remove this important tool for federal land managers, and citizens, results in a radical shift from the balanced land-use planning followed for decades by Republican and Democratic administrations alike. Additionally, the settlement deal immediately unraveled interim protection for 2.6 million acres of lands in Utah, which the BLM had found to possess wilderness characteristics, and revoked protections for some protected Wilderness Study Areas nation-wide.
Before this drastic policy shift, protecting lands with potential for wilderness designation was given equal weight with other possible land uses in the BLM’s planning process. In fact, federal law requires the BLM to keep up-to-date inventories of its land along with land use plans whereby Wilderness Study Areas could be established until Congress decides whether or not to permanently protect the areas. Now, these areas remain unprotected from an array of threats, such as mining, road building, and other destructive activities.
The Bush Administration’s assault on wilderness goes farther. In January, it announced a new regulation that opens the door for a wholesale giveaway of treasured lands owned by the American people. In issuing its “disclaimer of interest” rule, the Bush Administration resurrected a 137-year-old loophole known as Revised Statute 2477 (RS 2477) which allows states and counties to make road proposals through our National Parks, Wildlife Refuges, Monuments, Forests, Wilderness Areas – and even potential wilderness.
The loophole – which was repealed by Congress in 1976 – was originally used to encourage settlement of the West by granting highway rights-of-way and is completely unnecessary today with the modern laws available. However, with the Bush Administration issuing a rule allowing the government to “disclaim” federal interest in portions of these treasured lands, streambeds, hiking trails, and cow paths could be turned into paved highways.
The same week as her anti-wilderness settlement, after more than two years of negotiations behind closed doors, Secretary Norton penned another agreement with Utah purporting to establish a process by which RS 2477 rights-of-way will be recognized. In reality, this agreement leaves tens of millions of acres of treasured public lands vulnerable to a web of spurious road proposals. In particular, anti-wilderness proponents are eager to use RS 2477 to prevent future wilderness designations because roads would automatically disqualify areas for wilderness consideration.
Representative Mark Udall (D-CO) has introduced legislation to establish a responsible process for recognizing any legitimate RS 2477 rights-of-way and ensures a public process. In addition, Udall recently offered an amendment to a funding bill that would have prevented citizen tax dollars from being used to process these claims. While the full protection of the Udall amendment was not passed, the House of Representatives did take a first step to curb the broad anti-wilderness agenda of the Bush Administration. We expect the Senate to take up this issue in September, and calls and letters from citizens in support of closing this public lands giveaway loophole will be needed.
As if preventing future wilderness designations were not enough, the Bush Administration has now made it official that it does not want to be held accountable for protecting the lands it holds in trust for the American people. On July 18, 2003, the Administration asked the U.S. Supreme Court to throw out a lower court ruling that found citizens have the right to go to court and force the Bureau of Land Management to protect Wilderness Study Areas (WSA) from damage.
Federal law requires WSAs to be managed in such a way so that their wilderness values are not impaired by off-road vehicles (ORV), mining, logging, road building, and other development. In addition, federal law provides citizens the ability to take agencies to court and gives the courts the authority to “compel” federal agencies to meet legal requirements.
The case – which originated in Utah – centers on whether the federal government can be held accountable for damage occurring in WSAs from off-road vehicle (ORV) use. Citizens took the case to the 10 th Circuit Court of Appeals, which found citizens have the right to step in and enforce federal lands protections when the government fails to do so. Now the Administration wants this ruling overturned. By asking the Supreme Court to take the case, the Administration is arguing that the American people do not have a right to hold federal agencies accountable for breaking federal law. The Supreme Court will decide this fall if it will take the case.
Congressionally designated wilderness areas are essential. By protecting America’s special wild places from oil and gas development, mining, logging, off-road vehicle abuse, and road construction, we will ensure clean air and water, safe bird and wildlife habitats, and unparalleled recreational opportunities in a natural, scenic setting. To safeguard Arizona’s heritage and the beauty of our national wild treasures is a great legacy we can leave for future generations – and you can help!