I like to climb canyon walls, see windswept desert vistas, sleep under a crystalline lattice of stars, drink from hidden sandstone pockets of rainwater and, from time to time, let a wild river have its way with me. Experiencing wilderness is how I stay whole and well. But even if you’ve never been closer to a slot canyon than a Nexium commercial, the fate of wild lands is compelling because it may be our own.
Wilderness is not just the stuff of scenery-slick calendars or articles in outdoor adventure magazines like Outside and Men’s Journal. Wilderness and roadless landscapes are the source of 80% of our nation’s freshwater, our lifeblood. They are also storehouses of precious biodiversity, key to the viability and integrity of whole ecosystems. They provide critical habitat for endangered species and are the last places where we can experience the disappearing landscape that shaped our national character. And yes, they can provide spiritual solace.
Unfortunately, the Bush administration dealt the system of federally protected wilderness a crippling blow in a pair of out-of-court settlements with Utah Governor Michael Leavitt, now head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The deals brokered between Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Leavitt while he was still governor were a one-two punch delivered to conservationists in a dark alley behind a federal courthouse.
Left in critical condition: the Wilderness Act of 1964 which had for decades guided our collective decisions about how to identify, designate, and protect wilderness areas. After the mugging in the courthouse alley, the thieves made off with the means for turning millions of additional acres of “roadless” land (healthy and wild but not officially designated as wilderness) into special-service areas for oil and gas, mineral, timber, and grazing interests. Cow tracks and dry washes can now officially be designated “roads” and paved over to get to the loot — a clear case of identity theft that will rob us of irreplaceable reserves of wilderness so gas and oil corporations can party hardy.
Although most Americans may never get nearer to wilderness than a Discovery Channel documentary, millions have visited national parks and wilderness areas and millions more have seen the pictures, heard the stories, and dreamed of making their own pilgrimages one day. We are growing ever more eco-literate and understand the importance of healthy watersheds and biodiversity just as there is ever less to be eco-literate about.
Knowing that their deal would generate popular outrage, Norton and Leavitt conveniently confessed their crime the very week our troops invaded
Once the Bush administration declared an all-out war on western public lands, the unique and spectacular mesas and canyons of southern
In the mid-1990s, citizen volunteers conducted a thorough on-the-ground survey of
On March 28, 2003, Utah filed an “amended complaint” based on the way the BLM has managed wilderness “study areas” that have met the criteria to be officially designated and protected as wilderness but have not yet received final Congressional approval. The state’s case was weak and flawed, but it didn’t matter. Secretary of the Interior Norton let Governor Leavitt back up his truck to the courtroom loading dock and haul away whatever he wanted.
In fact, Norton did more than that. She actually renounced her department’s well-established authority to conduct wilderness reviews of public lands administered by the BLM and rescinded its authority to use any inventories conducted after 1991 as the basis for new Wilderness Study Area designations. In a single moment she rewrote federal law, ignored fifteen years of agency practice, and pronounced illegal her department’s most popular and important mission. If the Leavitt-Norton deal stands, 2.6 million acres of wilderness-quality lands identified in the BLM’s latest inventory cannot be managed as wilderness even though it clearly is wilderness by the agency’s own standards.
Millions of acres of wilderness-quality land throughout the West will also be affected. Under this settlement,
Sucker Punch and Judy
The Norton-Leavitt no-more-wilderness deal was not the first sneak attack the two of them made on four decades of popular and successful federal wilderness policy. Days earlier, they had signed an agreement aimed at disqualifying vast stretches of wild landscape from protection as federal wilderness. If implemented, this agreement will grease the skids for state governments, individual counties, and others to obtain thousands of bogus rights-of-way across national parks, monuments, wildlife refuges, proposed wilderness areas, even private property. The basis for this change was RS 2477, the less than memorable code name for Revised Statute (RS) 2477, an archaic provision of the 1866 Mining Act that was intended to facilitate the settlement of the West by granting Civil-War-era homesteaders rights-of-way across public lands. The law states simply, “The right-of-way for the construction of highways over public lands, not reserved for public uses, is hereby granted.” Although RS 2477 was repealed in 1976 by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, valid existing claims for highways already established were honored under a grandfather clause. Throughout the West in recent years, this short, seemingly simple statute has taken center stage in the debate over the future of our national parks and incomparable wilderness areas. What is a valid claim? What is an established highway?
Let’s start with what this issue is not about: roads. Instead, the real debate is about whether dry creek beds, off-road vehicle tracks, hiking trails, and cow-paths are really “highways” under federal law. Leavitt as governor argued, as did some rural
After more than two years of secret, closed-door negotiations, Norton and Leavitt signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) establishing a process by which the Interior Department will grant RS 2477 claims across public lands. There may be no meaningful opportunity for public comment, no environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act, and no conformance with other environmental laws that require the Interior Department to balance use and preservation. The MOU will loosen standards enough to potentially permit states to turn cow paths and foot-trails into constructed highways. It will permit
Governor Leavitt and Secretary Norton didn’t have long to wait for feedback on their two secret deals, and it wasn’t pretty. Both the national press and Congress responded in loud opposition to the agreements. They were joined by Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, members of the Salt Lake County Council, leading members of the outdoor recreation industry, and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. In the press, editorial writers from the New York Times, Atlanta Constitution Journal, St. Louis Dispatch, Arizona Daily Star, Salt Lake Tribune and other papers bemoaned “the end of wilderness” represented by these clandestine deals. The ink continued to flow as USA Today, the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Associated Press, MSNBC, PBS, the Denver Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Tribune, National Public Radio and others all ran essentially the same story. Dissent rang through the halls of Congress as a bipartisan corps of 100 Congressional representatives, led by Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), and Mark Udall (D-CO), signed a letter to Secretary Norton objecting to these deals as an attack on the wilderness and the public process. In reference to the two Leavitt-Norton agreements (as well as policy changes regarding wilderness reviews in
“With these three decisions you seem to be trying to limit Congress’ future opportunities to exercise its exclusive authority to designate qualifying public lands as wilderness. You have effectively taken away an important management tool for the BLM to protect some of the finest remaining wild lands in
State governments across the West were quick to criticize the RS 2477 right-of-way agreement. Citing the need to protect its scenic landscapes and wildlife habitat and to uphold local and regional planning efforts, the California Resources Agency, for instance, sent a letter to Secretary Norton in April asking that she leave
Wise and sustainable policies for managing our most precious national treasures grow from processes that are open, inclusive, informed, and accountable. The Norton-Leavitt backroom deals are alarming because they more closely resemble the process used by pirates to divide a treasure chest. Andâ€¦ aargh! Cap’n Leavitt is now over at the EPA!
Does the White House give a whit that while support for wilderness grows throughout the country, the Interior Department is serving up our last remaining wilderness landscapes to the oil industry, off-road vehicle groups, and mining companies? One thing’s for sure: the American public does care, and with one loud, clear voice we must tell the administration that we refuse to be shut out of important decisions that whittle away our public- lands inheritance and threaten to destroy some of America’s most spectacular wild landscapes.
Copyright C2004 Chip Ward
Chip Ward is a
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]