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Wilds advocates win a round

WASHINGTON — A federal judge has ruled that the Department of Interior "failed to perform an adequate search" for documents requested by conservationists challenging a negotiated settlement between Secretary of Interior Gale Norton and then-Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt that ended protection for millions of acres of public lands conservationists say are eligible for wilderness protection.

U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton in Washington, D.C., has ordered the Department of Interior to turn over the documents within 30 days or offer some legal rationale as to why the agency should not comply with the Freedom of Information Act.

Walton ruled that the agency's compliance with a document request by the Wilderness Society was "unreasonable and the search therefore inadequate."

The ruling comes in response to a lawsuit filed by conservation groups challenging an April 2003 deal between Norton and Leavitt that brought to an end the state's lawsuit against the federal government.

In 1996, then-Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt ordered the Bureau of Land Management to conduct a re-inventory of all Utah lands eligible for possible wilderness designation. Prior to that, roughly 3 million acres had been identified, but the re-inventory identified another 2.8 million acres that were missed the first time around.

Utah filed suit to stop the re-inventory, but most of the state's claims were dismissed. But one claim was not, and it remained a bone of contention between the federal government and the state.

Under terms of the deal between Norton and Leavitt, interim wilderness protection was afforded to only those lands having wilderness potential that were identified prior to the 1996 re-inventory.

All others had their interim protection removed, opening them to development.

The deal was challenged by conservationists in a federal lawsuit now before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. In a separate legal action, conservationists sought the court's help in acquiring documents the Department of Interior refused to divulge.

"Under this back-room deal, America's public lands are now being managed to place every other use — including oil drilling, logging and mining — above protection of wild, natural places," said Ted Zukoski, an attorney with Earth Justice, based in Denver. "The court's ruling should help us show a little light on this shady deal."

The Department of Interior released roughly 500 pages of documents related to the deal in April and May 2003, but the agency withheld another 150 documents, Zukoski said.

Zukoski said the federal courts have typically had a "skeptical eye" when it comes to government agencies refusing to disclosure its inner workings, and that Walton was clear the Department of Interior had "hurt the deliberative process."

The department can still make an argument that the documents are legally protected under provisions of the Freedom of Information Act.

Until then, conservationists are making hay that Norton and Leavitt had something to hide.

"The agency blacked out or refused to provide scores of documents that would shed embarrassing light on the collusive nature of the back-room deal," said Leslie Jones, attorney for the Wilderness Society. "The federal court's ruling says that the government can't use bogus excuses to hide how the deal was rendered."