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Utah is hottest anti-wilds 'rebel'

A rock shelter in Range Creek canyon frames a view of a wilderness study area near the Green River.
A rock shelter in Range Creek canyon frames a view of a wilderness study area near the Green River.
Ray Boren, Deseret Morning News

Known initially as the Sagebrush Rebellion, the anti-wilderness movement is a potent mix of rural, populist protest and corporate money from industries that benefit most from unrestricted access to federal land.

Nowhere has the opposition been more formidable than in Utah, where less wilderness has been created than in any other Western state except Hawaii.

The Clinton administration inflamed the anti-wilderness sentiment in 1996 by protecting 1.7 million acres as part of a new Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

The same year, Bruce Babbitt, Interior secretary under Clinton, renewed surveys of Utah lands with wilderness potential after numerous complaints that earlier surveys were faulty.

In the late 1970s and early '80s, the Bureau of Land Management had recommended 1.9 million acres for wilderness protection, but members of environmental groups and several former bureau employees testified in Congress that the agency had ignored or arbitrarily exempted millions of acres of eligible lands.

The new surveys ordered by Babbitt added 2.6 million more acres to the rolls of potential wilderness and were given interim protection pending congressional action.

In 1996, Utah sued the Clinton administration to block the surveys, contending that the legal deadline for completing the work had passed. Utah initially prevailed in its lawsuit before U.S. District Court Judge Dee Benson. But the ruling was reversed unanimously by a three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Five years later, with the Bush administration in office, state officials revived their case in an amended complaint in Benson's court in Salt Lake City.

Less than two weeks after the state filed suit, the Interior Department signed a settlement acquiescing to Utah's arguments on all the major issues.

With the agreement, Interior relinquished protection of the 2.6 million acres of Utah land and said the federal government had exceeded its authority when it earmarked those and other lands for protection.

Environmentalists cried foul.

"The Interior Department not only gave Utah every single thing they asked for in the lawsuit, Interior even gave them things they hadn't asked for and couldn't possibly have won because of the prior appeals court ruling in the case," said Earthjustice attorney Jim Angell, co-counsel for several environmental groups challenging the settlement.

The groups contend that Utah and the Bush administration were in cahoots and that the lawsuit was nothing more than a formality to get court approval of a prearranged deal.

Not so, said Connie Brooks, Utah's attorney. She said there was a genuine disagreement between Utah and the Interior Department, and that Utah refiled its lawsuit only after "glacial" negotiations spanning two years "failed to bear fruit."

Angell and other critics point to a series of e-mails as evidence that federal and state officials had the same goal and wanted a formal settlement before anyone of a different mind could intervene — such as the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, or SUWA, which had picked up rumors of a deal.

On March 24, one week before Utah filed its amended complaint, Interior attorney Wendy Dorman e-mailed Bob Comer, the department's chief attorney in Denver, saying: "If we want to settle this case, we need to act now. SUWA called Gary Randall at Justice last Friday and said it wants to intervene."

One day after Utah had filed its amended complaint, Brooks e-mailed Comer saying a settlement was almost concluded. And four days later, on April 5, Interior's associate deputy secretary, James E. Cason, sent a fax to Norton, who was staying at the Caneel Bay Resort in the U.S. Virgin Islands on a business trip, conveying a similar message: "We are currently in a polishing process."

Settlement papers were filed late Friday, April 11, at the federal courthouse in Salt Lake City. The judge approved the settlement the following Monday afternoon without a hearing.

Lawyers for the Bush administration acknowledge they are taking a position diametrically opposite from the one advanced by the Clinton administration when the case first came before the 10th Circuit Court in 1998.

"The settlement is not invalid merely because it represents a change from BLM's prior interpretations," Justice Department attorneys Thomas L. Sansonetti and Todd S. Aagard said in a brief. "Agencies have the inherent authority to change their position to conform to applicable law."

The government lawyers also said "by resolving a long-standing and contentious dispute with Utah, the settlement promoted a more cooperative relationship with the state, an outcome with considerable value to the BLM."

Former Clinton administration officials contend that the policy changes reflect more than a difference of opinion over land-management law.

"This settlement reeks of hostility to wilderness, to the whole idea of taking any steps to protect wild land in its natural condition," said John Leshy, the chief lawyer for the Interior Department under Clinton.

Martha Marks, president of REPAmerica, a Republican environmental organization, also has spoken out against the administration's wilderness policies, including the Utah settlement.

"If conservatives don't conserve, who will?"