PLF joins "wild lands" challenge


Author: Daniel Himebaugh

PLF attorneys recently filed this amicus brief in Uintah County v. Salazar, a lawsuit challenging the Interior Department's controversial "wild lands" policy.  Interior Secretary Ken Salazar initially presented this policy — known as "wild lands" for the new wilderness areas it creates — as a benign planning program.  But the "wild lands" policy is not an innocuous government exercise in producing paperwork.  Rather, it equips the Bureau of Land Management with an arsenal of tools for restricting productive use of public lands.

Under the "wild lands" policy, BLM must identify lands that have wilderness characteristics and may designate those areas as "wild lands."  Lands that qualify as wild lands are then subject to "high priority protection."  Protection takes two main forms: land use planning and project permitting.  Under land use planning, BLM may close wild lands to leasing, prohibit new roads, exclude commercial uses, and limit construction.  Under project permitting, BLM must withhold permits until the agency evaluates the project area for wilderness characteristics, potentially delaying the permitting process for a long time.  BLM may also condition or deny permits based on wilderness considerations.

The "wild lands" policy might seem smart to some people because it focuses on protecting wilderness, a valuable public resource.  But the "wild lands" policy conflicts with other federal laws requiring public lands to support multiple uses, and not to be cordoned off from productive use.  It also circumvents the legislative process for designating national wilderness, which must be done by Act of Congress, not unilateral regulation.

The State of Utah and other Utah county groups saw the "wild lands" policy as overreaching and filed suit in federal court earlier this year.  They argue that treating wild lands like national wilderness violates federal law.  The brief submitted by PLF supports these plaintiffs, and argues that the "wild lands" policy should be struck down because it was put into place without giving affected individuals the opportunity to comment on the policy before it took effect.

PLF represents eight other organizations as amici in this case: Guardians of the Range, National Cattlemen's Beef Association, Petroleum Association of Wyoming, Public Lands Council, Washington Cattlemen's Association, Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts, Wyoming County Commissioners Association, and Wyoming Stock Growers Association.