Issue 3, Summer 2003

Out of the Blue...

"I am firmly committed to a process called the Four C's: they are consultation, cooperation,
communication---all in the service of conservation."

--Gale Norton, Secretary of the Department of the Interior


Behind Closed Doors: How the Bush Administration is Dealing with Wilderness

The bad news reached the empty halls of Congress late on a Friday afternoon - just after the Easter recess began. Not many people were paying attention.

Department of the Interior Secretary Gale Norton announced that she had reached a settlement agreement with the state of Utah to eliminate the interim protections to 2.6 million acres of eligible wilderness in Utah. Former Secretary Bruce Babbitt had previously thwarted this effort in court during the Clinton Administration, but alas! These are different times and a different White House.

Former Interior
Secretary Babbitt.

Under the settlement, Secretary Norton not only agreed to withdraw the 2.6 million acres from wilderness consideration, but she renounced the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) authority to conduct wilderness reviews anywhere in the country.

The now-notorious Utah settlement agreement requires the BLM to nationally abandon their Wilderness Inventory Handbook, which has long provided the guidelines for citizens to study potential wilderness lands and waters and submit eligibility proposals to the agency. The handbook also provided direction for BLM to provide interim protection of lands that have requisite wilderness characteristics.

Fossil Springs Wilderness. Photo: Jason Williams

Previously, BLM could create Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) that would provide interim protection for lands that awaited official wilderness designation from Congress. However, now BLM is no longer required to protect wilderness quality lands to maintain their eligibility. The settlement prevents the agency from using their planning processes to provide critical interim wilderness protections. Essentially if an area exhibits remarkable wilderness characteristics but has not been officially designated by Congress, it may be mined, drilled, logged, or otherwise degraded with as little as a blink of an eye.

The settlement was made at the top levels of the Department of the Interior and did not include any involvement from local directors, managers, government officials, or community stakeholders. This is remarkably contrary to the consistent lip service the Secretary’s office has proffered regarding their desire to involve local managers, government officials, and stakeholders in all of their decisions.

Flagstaff citizens comment at a
Colorado River planning meeting.

The BLM inventory and planning process is one of the truest forms of democracy. It gives every American the chance to voice their view about how the public lands are managed. Without it, the Arizona Wilderness Coalition would not have been able to compile the comprehensive data its dedicated volunteers gathered into nine BLM proposals that include 70 units and cover nearly 2 million acres of Arizona’s wildest places. Our volunteers have given BLM thousands of hours following wilderness handbook guidelines for developing citizen proposals for the establishment of WSAs—all in good faith that they were saving some Arizona’s last wild places. Norton’s decision deliberately pulls the rug out from under our most dedicated citizen supporters.

The Arizona Wilderness Coalition is not discouraged. We are simply outraged. The competent legal staff at Earthjustice has agreed to represent us and the citizens of Arizona in a lawsuit against Interior, in which we ally with seven other wilderness advocacy groups to charge that the Department violated federal environmental laws, the U.S. Constitution, and federal court decisions when it secretly agreed to surrender the BLM’s authority to review and protect wilderness quality lands. The Bush Administration’s record in the courts is dismal, and we believe they have once again transgressed the law.

In conclusion, I expect that federal court will confirm that BLM does have the authority and the responsibility to create WSA’s to protect wilderness character. Until then, even the Department of Interior admits that BLM does have a legal responsibility to inventory and consider lands of wilderness character when revising Resource Management Plans. Regardless of whether they call our proposal WSA’s or some other name, they must consider our Citizen Proposals.

The work of our volunteers and staff clearly remains valid. AWC will continue to identify public lands that are worthy and eligible of permanent wilderness protection and work undeterred to accomplish that protective status. If the BLM does not adequately protect wilderness qualities during their planning processes, then it will only help to highlight the urgency for Congressional designation. Hang in there with us.

Don Hoffman, the current Director of the AWC, is a retired Wilderness Program Manager with the U.S Forest Service. He spent a significant portion of his career managing and working in the Blue Range Primitive Area, one of the crown jewels of Arizona wilderness.