WASHINGTON — Enforcing a Utah court settlement nationwide, the Bureau of Land Management halted Monday treating any land as if it were formal wilderness — unless Congress has actually given it that status or made it a formal wilderness study area.
That move was feared, but expected, for months by environmental groups. They contend that millions more wild acres in Utah and the West need special BLM safeguards to prevent development and allow future wilderness designation.
But BLM Deputy Director Jim Hughes — who issued the order — told the Deseret Morning News that new rules follow the law and end what had been illegal rules by the Clinton administration that gave unfair emphasis to protecting wilderness values in the land-planning process.
"The process was tilted too much toward wilderness values. It appeared to many that it administratively created WSAs (wilderness study areas)," he said. "Now we have a level playing field for all of the multiple land use values that we consider."
Environmental groups, such as the Coalition for America's Wilderness, said Thursday evening they were studying the new BLM orders before responding.
The BLM agreed to take such action last April to settle a lawsuit by Utah challenging the Clinton rules. The new rules issued Monday affect not just Utah but the nation.
That is one reason environmental groups dislike Utah Gov. Mike Lea-
vitt — who instigated the lawsuit — and oppose his nomination to head the Environmental Protection Agency. The new orders come just before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is scheduled to vote on Leavitt's nomination Wednesday.
Utah has 3.2 million acres of formal WSA's created by Congress on BLM land. However, environmental groups have proposed a total of 9 million acres as Utah wilderness. The BLM, under Clinton rules, started banning motor vehicles and any "impairment" to wilderness values there.
Utah, the Utah Association of Counties and the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration had filed a lawsuit arguing the BLM overstepped its authority, and Bush administration lawyers at the BLM agreed in April.
The BLM ordered Monday that land-use plans completed after April 14 "will not designate any new WSAs nor manage any additional lands under the . . . non-impairment standard."
However, it said the BLM "may continue to inventory public lands for resources or other values, including wilderness characteristics, as a part of managing the public lands and land-use planning."
Also, environmental groups — or any other interests — may petition for changes in current land-use plans with new information, such as their own land inventories. However, existing plans remain in effect until the review process concludes.
"BLM will not manage those lands (being reviewed) . . . as if they are or may become congressionally designated wilderness areas, but through the planning process BLM may manage them using special protections to protect wilderness characteristics," the order said.
Hughes said the rules allow a wide spectrum of possible use decisions.
"First, other multiple uses could be found to outweigh wilderness characteristics," and plans would then allow such things as development, mining or off-road vehicle use, he said.
"Second, it might emphasize the other uses but still give special protections to mitigate the impacts on wilderness characteristics. Third, it might emphasize wilderness over the other values. . . . It's not limited to those three possibilities. Any mixture along that spectrum is possible."
Hughes added that the BLM is currently developing 65 land use plans at various BLM areas nationally and expects to begin another 15 this year. He said others may come as affected groups seek them and bring in new information.