PUBLIC LANDS:

Settlement sought in dispute over BLM Utah resource plans

Environmental groups and the federal government are trying to reach an out-of-court settlement on litigation involving six Bureau of Land Management resource management plans covering roughly 11 million acres of public lands in Utah.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) in a recent court filing asked U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina to postpone proceedings while the group pursues "intense settlement negotiations" with federal attorneys over the plans.

The negotiations represent a new juncture in a battle involving the December 2008 sale of 77 disputed oil and gas leases -- authorized under the resource management plans, or RMPs -- that were later withdrawn by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar due to concerns they were improperly issued and could affect national parks and other sensitive landscapes.

The settlement talks include the Moab, Price and Vernal RMPs that BLM completed in the waning days of the George W. Bush administration, which were challenged in a December 2008 complaint by SUWA and groups including the Wilderness Society, Sierra Club, the National Parks Conservation Association and the Grand Canyon Trust.

The talks also include a related case -- filed just last month -- over three additional RMPs and off-highway vehicle travel plans also finalized in late 2008 that share several "common issues of fact" with the other plans, according to the filing in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

SUWA and most of the same groups filed the newer complaint challenging the Monticello, Kanab and Richfield RMPs using many of the same arguments. That lawsuit targets BLM's decision to allow 8,500 miles of off-highway vehicle trails across roughly 4.5 million acres of land, among other issues.

"In a desert environment that is easily scarred and slow to heal, wilderness, soils, cultural resources, and wildlife will be affected by these actions for many decades to come," the complaint notes.

An attorney from SUWA would not discuss details of the settlement talks, citing the sensitive nature of the negotiations. A spokesperson for BLM could not be reached by deadline.

Environmental groups first sued BLM just days ahead of the 2008 sale, arguing that the underlying RMPs in Moab, Vernal and Price failed to consider a range of environmental impacts including air quality, off-highway vehicle use, wilderness values and climate change.

Following the sale, an Interior Department report found BLM deviated "in important respects" from its normal oil and gas leasing procedures by failing to provide the National Park Service opportunity to comment on the proposed parcels (Greenwire, June 11, 2009). But an inspector general report released this summer found that BLM supervisors did not pressure employees to finish the authorizing RMPs ahead of the sale (Land Letter, July 15).

An attorney representing a Utah agency in the 2008 case questioned SUWA's requested postponement and pointed to the eight to 14 years of community involvement BLM relied upon in developing the RMPs.

"It's a little strange to file a complaint and at the same time seek a stay," said Michael Marinovich an attorney in Denver who is representing the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration in the 2008 case.

But Heidi McIntosh, associate director for SUWA, said all six of the plans were flawed due to a 2003 agreement between BLM and the state of Utah in which then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton agreed to stop identifying wilderness study areas.

Known by environmental groups as the "no more wilderness" policy, the Norton settlement "precluded the BLM from creating new wilderness study areas," McIntosh said. "Areas with wilderness character in southern Utah got short shrift and weren't given the protection they deserved [in RMPs]."

At a March hearing before House appropriators, Salazar said Interior is "looking at various alternatives, including the possibility of rescinding straight out the [Norton settlement], to other authorities that we have to make sure we are protecting special places that have wilderness characteristics."

BLM has said it hopes to issue its new wilderness policy by the end of the fiscal year, but sources have suggested an announcement could come by the end of the month.

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