Ryan Holeywell is a staff writer at GOVERNING.E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
State and local officials are railing against new policies they say will prevent development and job growth in huge swaths of federally managed land in the West. Now they’ve filed a federal lawsuit, and more legal challenges could be forthcoming. The suit, filed in March by tiny Uintah County, Utah, (population 31,500) and the Utah Association of Counties (UAC), seeks to overturn the new "wild lands" policy announced by Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar last December -- a policy that calls for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to compile an inventory of federally controlled land that has "wilderness characteristics" and update land-use plans for areas that fit that description. The BLM oversees 245 million acres of land.
The new policy is a shift for the bureau, which had essentially stopped taking action on wild lands as a result of a 2003 settlement between the state of Utah and then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton that was criticized by environmentalists. Both state and local officials say they weren’t consulted before the new policy was announced, which has made the fight even more personal. "The anger and the angst that is coming from our members -- they feel this as a bit of a slap in the face," says Ryan Yates, associate legislative director of the National Association of Counties.
For Uintah County, the lawsuit’s stakes are high. More than half of all of the natural gas and oil produced in Utah is extracted from that county. Mark Ward, attorney for UAC, says the policy will have a major impact on the energy industry in Utah, and even before the BLM implemented the policy, it had started rejecting lease applications and drill permits in the area, resulting in decreased revenue for state and local government. "This is our jobs," says Uintah County Commissioner Mike McKee. "This is about our families, our livelihoods, our way of life."
Opponents of the policy say it was created to allow the BLM to bypass rules that only give Congress the authority to designate wilderness areas. But Nada Culver, senior counsel at The Wilderness Society, which advocates for preservation of wilderness land, says the BLM’s new policy is a return to its traditional mission and duty.
BLM officials argue that a 2008 appeals court ruling requires it to maintain a wilderness inventory and consider wilderness preservation as it plans land use. The bureau also maintains that the new wild lands designation is flexible and not nearly as restrictive as its critics claim. Bureau officials say it won’t impair economic activity or halt existing projects, and it will help preserve areas that host outdoor activities like fishing and hunting, which generate $7.4 billion annually for local economies in the West.
Still, more lawsuits could be coming from other states and counties that expect it will restrict the oil and gas industry, as well as the construction of energy transmission lines and other projects. Some House conservatives may also work to simply block funding that would allow the BLM to implement the policy. McKee says he hopes the BLM will repeal the policy on its own. "I would love to see the Department of Interior step back and say, 'We made a mistake.'"