Press Release: Interior Department Dictates “No More Wilderness” to People of Arizona
Wilderness Advocacy Groups Lead Arizona Citizens into Lawsuit to Protect Public Options
May 7, 2003
Phoenix— The Arizona Wilderness Coalition (AWC), The Wilderness Society, and other conservation groups filed papers in the United States District Court late Friday, firing back at the Department of the Interior’s plan to freeze wilderness consideration on more than 200 million acres of public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
In Arizona, the freeze would jeopardize protection for nearly 2 million acres of lands that citizen volunteers all over the state have identified as eligible for wilderness designation by Congress–many of which are in the heart of Arizona’s national monuments. These citizen efforts have created 9 wilderness proposals pending with the BLM that offer protection for 70 public land units in Arizona, among them:
134,000 acres at risk for development and rampant off-road vehicle use in Sonoran Desert National Monument
169,000 acres at risk in Vermilion Cliffs National Monument that protect 12th century archaeological sites and endangered species habitat
33,000 acres at risk in Ironwood Forest National Monument, where the last viable population of desert bighorn sheep in Pima County survive. Towns outside of the monument are exploding with growth rates of more than 50% per decade.
“This is a frightening decision that will have far-reaching, quality-of-life ramifications for people in Arizona and across America, who, as taxpayers, own this land,” says Don Hoffman, Executive Director of the Arizona Wilderness Coalition. “Hundreds of citizens from around the state have logged thousands of hours in good faith to analyze the wilderness potential of these lands and create proposals for the BLM. Now the Administration is literally pulling the rug out from under us.”
In the suit, national and state conservation groups from Arizona and seven other Western states charged that the Department had 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 its wilderness quality lands.
Norton’s freeze was part of a settlement in a lawsuit brought by the state of Utah against the federal government.
Wilderness designation by Congress offers the highest level of protection for public lands, while also providing opportunities for users to hunt, fish, hike, and camp in some of the country’s last untamed landscapes. Without allowing the BLM to consider wilderness protection as an alternative, the Department is effectively subjecting these public lands to mining, oil and gas drilling, rampant off-road vehicle use, logging, and other uses that have powerful promoters on Capitol Hill—and that have the support of the Bush Administration itself.
Many of the areas in the eye of this storm are units within the National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS). Established in 2000, the NLCS was set up to be the conservation heart of lands managed by the BLM, including many of Arizona’s national monuments.
“The federal government is rushing to develop some of America’s last wild lands—including many of our nation’s national monuments and the newest conservation system in this country, the NLCS,” says Michael Carroll, with The Wilderness Society’s Support Center. “Once wilderness and these special places are destroyed, they cannot be recreated.”
Conservationists noted the secret deal between Utah and the federal government follows the Bush Administration pattern of “sue and settle," whereby the federal government sells out public lands protections under the guise of settling a lawsuit brought by development friends.
In a letter to Secretary Norton on April 9th, fourteen Western lawmakers urged her to “immediately suspend any new wilderness reviews of public lands” because they “frustrate current efforts to identify and open key areas on public lands for energy production…” Arizona Senator John McCain (R) did not sign on to the letter.
“Senator McCain has been a true champion of Arizona’s public lands,” AWC’s Hoffman says. “We hope he’ll act quickly to ensure our state’s wilderness legacy for present and future Americans. The people out walking these trails aren’t just conservationists. They are mothers, fathers, teachers, and business owners who want to ensure their children and children’s children can enjoy Arizona’s wild landscape for many years to come.”
“To know that all our work is for nothing, these beautiful places most surely will be degraded, and future generations might never experience their magic—it’s infuriating,” says Judy Shaw, who spent three months inventorying the trails and characteristics around Saddle Mountain in the Sonoran Desert.
In addition to the Arizona Wilderness Coalition, other groups challenging the Department’s order include: Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, The Wilderness Society, New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, Colorado Environmental Coalition, Friends of Nevada Wilderness, Natural Resources Defense Council, California Wilderness Coalition, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, and Idaho Conservation League.
The Arizona Wilderness Coalition works to protect and restore wilderness and other wildlands and waters in Arizona.
Founded in 1935, The Wilderness Society works to protect America's wilderness and to develop a nation-wide network of wild lands through public education, scientific analysis, and advocacy. Visit www.tws.org .
For more information, contact:
Don Hoffman, Executive Director, AWC: 928-339-4426; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michael Carroll, The Wilderness Society Support Center: 970-247-8788; email@example.com