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Interior is ordered to turn over papers

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 thorn 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.