August 4, 2008

Court rejects SUWA appeal on wilderness deal

By Patty Henetz
The Salt Lake Tribune

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance seeks to have about 9.5 million acres in Utah protected. Ray Bloxham/SUWA

For the second time, a federal appeals court has rejected a conservation organization's attempts to challenge a 2003 backroom deal limiting wilderness in Utah.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled today that the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance must wait until it can cite U.S. Bureau of Land Management actions that show the agency is behaving illegally.

At issue is the "no more wilderness" deal signed by former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt and former Interior Secretary Gale Norton that froze the state's wilderness study areas at 3.2 million acres.

The Leavitt-Norton settlement sought to end a lawsuit the state filed in 1996 challenging wilderness areas inventoried after 1991, the final year of the Wilderness Study Area survey ordered by Congress.

The agreement, concluded without public knowledge or participation, removed from consideration nearly 6 million acres of potential wilderness inventoried during the Clinton administration.

SUWA and 10 other conservation organizations in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and California argued that allowing the Leavitt-Norton deal to stand would mean future harm to wilderness-quality lands because the BLM likely would allow oil and gas development and motorized travel in the inventoried areas. If that happened, they alleged, the lands could end up too damaged to gain wilderness designation.

The 10th Circuit said that argument was too abstract to uphold.