PUBLIC LANDS:

'Wild lands' policy stokes flames of dissent in Utah county

The Interior Department's decision to extend the highest level of protection to millions of acres of pristine federal land across the West has sparked howls of protests from Republican lawmakers and shouts of praise among environmentalists.

But Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's Dec. 22, 2010, executive order to protect wide swaths of federal land with "wilderness characteristics" may be most acutely felt in northeast Utah's Uintah County, which has fought tooth and nail against what it perceives as the Interior Department's heavy hand with respect to public lands management.

The county, with support from the Utah Association of Counties, sued the Obama administration last October, claiming the Interior Department had thwarted a policy established by the George W. Bush administration that promised federally owned parcels would not be afforded wilderness-level protection unless they were formally designated by Congress.

The policy, forged in a 2003 agreement between then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton and former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt (R), also held that the Bureau of Land Management would not designate additional wilderness study areas in Utah, or manage roughly 2.6 million acres of proposed wilderness as de facto wilderness (Greenwire, Dec. 23, 2010).

With Salazar's policy reversal, some believe Uintah County has lost its legal standing against BLM and Interior. But county officials and their attorneys say Salazar's directive could actually strengthen their case by proving what the county has long maintained -- that BLM has illegally prohibited oil and gas development on a 385,000-acre parcel in the county because the land is included in the "America's Red Rock Wilderness Act."

That legislation, sponsored by Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), would preserve 9.4 million acres of pristine land across eastern Utah, but is not supported by any of Utah's congressional delegation, and its prospects for passage may grow even slimmer in the Republican-controlled 112th Congress.

Mark Ward, an attorney with the Utah Association of Counties who advises Uintah County and other municipalities on public lands issues, said Uintah officials could amend their original complaint to challenge Salazar's new directive, a strategy that other local governments may follow.

"That's where I see this going. I very much think other counties will join us, too," said Uintah County Commissioner Mike McKee.

Connie Brooks, a Denver-based public lands attorney representing Uintah County, added: "Certainly the secretary's action makes our case a lot more immediate. I think it's fair to say that a lot of the counties are going to wake up and go, 'Oh my goodness, what happened here?'"

Such predictions have Utah environmental groups girding for a fight.

Steve Bloch, conservation director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which has intervened on Interior's behalf in the Uintah County lawsuit, said he expects the complaint to be amended and that more counties will sign on as co-plaintiffs.

But such moves will not undermine the validity of the Salazar order, at least in the short term, nor will they slow ongoing efforts to protect pristine areas in the state that have wilderness characteristics or are awaiting congressional approval to be designated as wilderness, Bloch said.

"This is a long overdue step to bring back balance in how BLM manages its lands by placing wilderness on par with other uses of public land, like energy development and recreation," he said. "It does not authorize BLM to designate new wilderness areas. Only Congress can do that. But Congress delegated wide discretion to BLM to manage public lands, and this new policy is consistent with that."

Obama's 'radical policies'

Secretarial Order 3310, announced two days before Christmas with no advance notice, sparked a range of reactions heading into the new year and the new Congress. Environmental groups welcomed the order as a gift from an administration whose lands policies have trended toward conservation but also advocated for expansive new renewable energy development on public lands. Republicans and pro-development groups, meanwhile, responded with a mix of consternation and outrage.

Utah Rep. Rob Bishop (R), the incoming chairman of the National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee in the House of Representatives, called the directive "a blatant attempt to usurp Congress' role over public land management," and accused the Obama administration of extending "an early Christmas present to the far left extremists who oppose the multiple uses of our nation's public lands."

Bishop, in an interview with E&E Daily this week, said he would aggressively question Salazar about whether BLM has the authority to impose temporary wilderness restrictions on federal lands in the West (see related story).

"I don't know anywhere else where an administration has been brazen enough to think they can establish policy without the legislative authority to do so," Bishop said.

Bishop's comments follow months of heated rhetoric from members of the GOP-led Congressional Western Caucus, which has heaped scorn on the Interior Department since last February, when portions of a draft Interior discussion paper identifying sites for new or expanded national monuments was leaked and widely circulated on Capitol Hill (E&ENews PM, Feb.18, 2010).

Among other things, the document, later released in full, revealed that BLM considers up to 140 million acres of public land -- more than half of the 264 million acres it manages -- as "treasured lands" that could be eligible for conservation restrictions (Land Letter, Aug. 12, 2010).

While Salazar has downplayed the document's findings as only ideas, and not a policy directive, it has fueled speculation by opponents that President Obama would use his powers under the 1906 Antiquities Act to designate new monuments without congressional consent.

Bills filed in the last year by lawmakers from California, Colorado, Montana, Nevada and Utah seek to check the president's authority to create new national monuments by requiring congressional approval for all such designations (Land Letter, March 4, 2010).

And in a report released last fall entitled "The War on Western Jobs," Bishop and Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Senate Western Caucus, argued that Washington's "misguided policies," including restricting "access to America's vast reserves of affordable oil and natural gas," have contributed to the highest regional unemployment rate in the nation for the past year.

Bishop echoed those same sentiments in criticizing Salazar's "wild lands" order.

"Make no mistake about it," he said, "this decision will seriously hinder domestic energy development and further contributes to the uncertainty and economic distress that continues to prevent the creation of new jobs in a region that has unduly suffered from this administration's radical policies."

Oil and gas jobs

That is why Uintah County's legal challenge remains in play.

At least half the jobs in the county are tied to the oil and natural gas drilling sector, said McKee, the county commissioner. He and others say tougher permitting and conservation measures enacted under the Obama administration have already scared off drillers, contributing to one of the highest unemployment rates in the state.

"We have to fight to hold onto our core values and our core economy," McKee said.

But there is plenty of evidence that the new policy is not going to stop oil and gas development across the West, said Bloch, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance official.

BLM is reviewing four large development proposals in the Uintah Basin that, if approved, could allow for the drilling of more than 17,000 new natural gas wells across thousands of acres of federal land in the county.

"The Uintah Basin is not going to be closed for business because of this," Bloch said. "The cry that the sky is falling is not true."

Click here to read Salazar's executive order.

Click here to read the leaked Interior memo.

Click here to read the "War on Western Jobs" report.

Streater writes from Colorado Springs, Colo.