Utah and Wyoming counties are considering a legal challenge to an Interior Department policy ordering field personnel to inventory roadless lands and consider interim protections.
The counties, backed by the state of Utah, are meeting in Salt Lake City today to discuss strategies for opposing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's "wild lands" policy issued in late December, which orders the Bureau of Land Management to consider wilderness qualities in its resource planning and project-level analyses.
After public input, BLM may designate certain areas as wild lands where motorized recreation and industrial activity is banned to protect recreation, ecological values or solitude.
The county strategies, according to a Denver-based attorney whose firm has represented a Utah county, could include an amended complaint to an October 2010 lawsuit by Uintah County alleging that Interior had imposed de facto wilderness that stifled oil and gas development on 385,000 acres.
"We are definitely seeing if we can't work on amending our old complaint," said Michael Marinovich, an attorney for C.E. Brooks & Associates PC.
The Uintah case was rendered moot, some say, when Salazar introduced the wild lands policy. But others argue the order actually strengthens the county's case that BLM has illegally prohibited oil and gas development on lands included in a wilderness bill known as "America's Red Rock Wilderness Act" (Land Letter, Jan. 6).
Connie Brooks, the lead attorney in the Uintah case, said in December that Salazar's order also illegally overturned resource management plans completed under the George W. Bush administration.
Six of those plans are tied up in litigation filed by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which is currently in settlement negotiations with BLM (E&ENews PM, Dec. 6, 2010).
"That is probably the biggest concern that local elected officials have," said Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the House public lands subcommittee. After meeting with BLM Director Bob Abbey last month, Bishop said he was not given a clear signal for how the agency plans to address management plans in Utah and fears the agency is sending the wrong signal to businesses.
Today's meeting in Salt Lake City will include input from the Utah Association of Counties, the Wyoming County Commissioners Association and members of Utah Republican Gov. Gary Herbert's staff, according to an itinerary obtained by Greenwire.
Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) will also attend the meeting, and Bishop will address the group by speakerphone, he said.
Meanwhile, Wyoming counties are raising funds to help pay for public meetings and legal planning, according to the Sublette Examiner in Pinedale, Wyo.
Their efforts come less than a week after Herbert said he was "up for the fight" and was willing to use litigation to stop BLM from implementing the order, according to The Salt Lake Tribune.
'On very solid grounds' -- Salazar
Congressional Democrats, environmental groups and several dozen elected officials in Colorado have praised the wild lands policy for reaffirming BLM's mandate to consider wilderness qualities on par with other resources such as motorized recreation, mineral extraction and grazing.
Salazar last month told E&E the policy was "on very solid grounds" and was supported by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (E&E Daily, Jan. 27). He has also rejected claims that the policy is designed to lock up Western lands and emphasized that wild lands are designated with input from the public and can be overturned in subsequent planning.
"Secretary Salazar's order restores wilderness as a high priority, in his words, for the BLM, and gave wilderness quality landscapes a path forward for protection by BLM and then ultimately permanent protection via congressional legislation," said Heidi McIntosh, an attorney for SUWA, which is campaigning for the Red Rocks wilderness bill.
According to a 2009 letter signed by 55 law professors, all administrations since the Carter administration -- except the George W. Bush administration -- had recognized that BLM's land-use planning authority under Federal Land Policy and Management Act includes the authority to designate wilderness study areas and protect those areas from development until Congress decides whether to legislatively protect them.
The Bush administration in 2003 struck a settlement with former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt (R) that ended the use of study areas and essentially abandoned BLM's wilderness guidance. "The agreement itself was not consistent with existing law," McIntosh said.
Others this afternoon are scheduled to speak out in favor of Salazar's policy in a teleconference. Among them: Frank Hugelmeyer, president of the Outdoor Industry Association; David Lien, co-chairman of Colorado Backcountry Hunters and Anglers; the Rev. Warren Murphy of the Wyoming Association of Churches; and Jennifer Hobson, former deputy secretary for tourism in New Mexico.