Press Release: Interior Appeals Board Overturns Decision Allowing Road Construction, Motor Vehicles in Arizona's Wilderness
March 7, 2006
Washington, D.C.--The Department of Interior’s Board of Land Appeals (IBLA) has overturned a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) decision that would have allowed road construction and hundreds of motor vehicle trips to access private land within the congressionally designated Mt. Tipton Wilderness in Arizona. The challenge to BLM’s decision was brought by a coalition of environmental organizations including Wilderness Watch, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Arizona Wilderness Coalition and Maricopa Audubon Society. The road construction was requested by two California residents who wanted to turn their 60-acre inholding (private land completely surrounded by federal or other non-private land) in the middle of the Wilderness into an upscale, private horse ranch. The inholding was acquired by the current owners several years after the Wilderness was established.
“This is a very important decision that has implications far beyond Mt. Tipton,” stated George Nickas, executive director of Wilderness Watch, a Missoula, Montana-based organization that works to protect designated Wilderness throughout the United States. “The precedents in this decision will protect Wilderness on BLM lands throughout the West. The IBLA ruling makes it much harder for BLM to allow land speculators or anyone else who doesn’t have a pre-existing, legal right of access to harm the public’s Wilderness for personal gain.”
Designated under the Arizona Desert Wilderness Act of 1990, the 31,000-acre Mount Tipton Wilderness lies in the Cerbat Mountains in remote western Arizona, north of Kingman. A diverse range of habitats within the Wilderness ranging from Mohave desert scrub and chaparral communities at lower elevations to a remnant stand of old-growth ponderosa pine near the summit of 7,148 foot Mount Tipton provide habitat for a wide diversity of wildlife species. The proposed road construction and associated development of a private residence, barns, riding areas, and installation of a well and septic system, would have permanently and irreversibly degraded the area’s wilderness character. BLM’s decision would have allowed over 1,100 vehicles to use the newly constructed road each year, and the lights and noise associated with the proposed horse ranch would directly impact thousands of acres within the Wilderness boundary.
"We're thrilled wilderness and wildlife will be protected from motorized excess," said Daniel R. Patterson, ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson who formerly worked with BLM. "BLM's poor management forced it to court. Now Mt. Tipton protection is strongly affirmed, and we'll be watching the feds to keep it that way."
Don Hoffman, executive director of the Arizona Wilderness Coalition added, "We respect the rights of private landowners within wilderness areas, but in this case, BLM tried to give away more than the law allows. We are very pleased that the intended protections of the Wilderness Act have yet again been upheld."
Under the Wilderness Act of 1964, federal agencies such as the BLM are required to preserve the wilderness character of designated Wilderness areas, defined in part as areas “without permanent improvements or human habitation,” and “where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” While the Wilderness Act does allow the BLM to provide “adequate access” to inholdings of private property within Wilderness areas, the scope of such access must be balanced against the agency’s duty to protect wilderness values. Thus, judicial interpretations of the Wilderness Act have concluded that non-mechanized forms of travel, such as the use of pack animals, are often an appropriate and “adequate” form of inholding access. The IBLA’s ruling does not interfere with the landowner’s ability to access the property by foot, horseback or other non-mechanized means.
The existence of inholdings within Wilderness areas and other federal lands represents an enormous issue for both wilderness advocates and land management agencies. Problems associated with this issue include environmental degradation caused by motorized access, land speculation and threatened development, and use of inholdings that are incompatible with Wilderness designation. There are an estimated 311,500 acres of privately owned land within Wilderness areas administered by BLM nationwide, including approximately 5,600 acres in Arizona.
The IBLA ruling can be viewed at: http://www.ibiadecisions.com/Ibla/Ibladecisions/168IBLA/168IBLA016.pdf