Potential wilderness deal draws ire
DENVER – Environmental groups went before a federal appeals court Wednesday to challenge former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt’s 2003 deal with the Interior Department to prevent protection of 2.6 million acres of potential wilderness in Utah and millions more acres around the country.The deal, approved by a federal judge in Salt Lake City after secret negotiations, also eliminated existing protection for federal lands being considered for wilderness designation.Jim Angell of the environmental group Earthjustice told a three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals the settlement is illegal.Attorneys for Utah and the federal government told the judges they don’t have the legal authority to review the agreement. They also argued the settlement simply reversed a Clinton administration policy that gave the Bureau of Land Management too much authority to put some lands off-limits to oil and gas exploration.The deal reached far beyond Utah; it applied to about 300,000 acres of BLM-designated “wilderness study areas” previously shielded from roads, development and motorized vehicles while advocates lobbied for permanent protection, and to several million acres around the country the BLM considered wilderness quality.Environmental groups have long argued the Bush administration and Utah were working together and had the settlement under consideration before the state filed its amended lawsuit.”It’s a fundamental rewrite affecting millions of acres across the country of wilderness-quality lands and it was disposed of via a back-room deal,” Angell said outside the courtroom.Angell, who also represents several other conservation groups, told the judges the BLM began operating under the settlement almost immediately, opening up some pristine lands around the West to oil and gas development and informing Congress it had no authority to continue evaluating land as potential wilderness.eferring to the 15-minute limit each side is given to argue its case. Some observers in the gallery hissed and groaned at her remark.After Murphy told her to answer the question, Brooks said the agreement was never released for public review because the government didn’t think the judge would approve the settlement as quickly as he did – the next business day after he was shown the proposed settlement.
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