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Uintah County amends lawsuit against Interior Department
Officials want judge to rule on 'wild lands' policy
Mary Bernard, Vernal Express
Uintah County and the Utah Association of Counties have amended their prior lawsuit against the Department of Interior to include a challenge of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's order to designate “wild lands” as a multiple use of public lands.

"We're trying to halt the continual assault to Uintah County's public land use and the effort to turn upside down the Vernal Bureau of Land Management resource management plan," Uintah County Commissioner Mike McKee said about the latest amendment to the lawsuit.

The thrust of the revised complaint says the new policy creates wilderness lands in violation of the Norton-Leavitt agreement of 2003.

At that time, Interior Secretary Gale Norton and then-Gov. Mike Leavitt crafted an out-of-court agreement referred to as the "No More Wilderness Settlement" meant to curb non-congressional wilderness designations.

The lawsuit claims Salazar's order conflicts with established policy, violates the Bureau of Land Management's multiple use mandate, and will ultimately restrict oil and natural gas development that is critical to rural Utah's economy. It also claims BLM managers will be allowed designate acreage with wilderness characteristics as wild lands at the expense of energy production.

As much as 385,000 acres in Uintah County face potential designation as wild lands, which could be "locked up from economic development," McKee said.

The plaintiffs say Interior has created a duplicate "public lands designation of wild lands that is indistinguishable from Wilderness Study Areas," which is inconsistent with the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, passed in 1976. They are asking the court to declare the secretary's order null and void and stop the BLM from managing the non-Wilderness Study Area public lands as if they were WSAs or wild lands.

Conservation groups contend the new policy is part of the BLM's responsibility under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.

"Uintah County is an excellent example of the effort to strike a balance between significant oil and gas resource development while conserving significant landscapes," said Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance attorney Steve Bloch.

SUWA is a party to the lawsuit on the side of the federal government and other conservation groups.

The Norton-Leavitt settlement was never intended to bind future administrations as U.S. District Judge Dee Benson made clear in a 2006 ruling, Bloch said. Each administration may develop their own public lands policy for conservation and development of natural resources, he said.

But a lack of transparency in developing the wild lands policy has irked officials as much the conflicting management result.

In describing why stakeholders were excluded from consultation on the policy Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, wrote it was "no doubt due to the fact that the Department of Interior knew how detrimental this policy would be to so many communities in Utah and throughout the West."

Clarity, according to county officials, has been further obscured by the addition of new land use reforms called Master Leasing Plans, which they claim will overturn existing resource management plans.

The MLP program, which further restricts mineral leasing on federal lands, was approved for Utah on March 21, the same day the counties were first informed of the program.

"A total of five MLP areas are designated in Utah, a total of 2,920,591 acres with 650,157 acres in the Vernal MLP," Kent Hoffman, Utah deputy state BLM director for lands & minerals, wrote in an email to the Uintah County Commission.

A letter signed by commissioners from Duchesne and Uintah counties takes the BLM to task for its secretive conduct, calling on the agency to “start over from the beginning on these Master Leasing Plans, this time providing state and local governmental cooperating agencies opportunity for proper input.”

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              Page Updated: Sunday March 27, 2011 02:27 AM  Pacific

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