How the West
was Lost


In April, 2003, the Bush administration suddenly rewrote the policy governing how public land is preserved as wilderness in America. It was done quietly, with next to no debate or public comment. This is what it means for you.

It happened when no one was watching. A little before 5 p.m. on Friday, April 11, three days after coalition forces had entered Baghdad and just as Congress was leaving for spring recess, Interior Secretary Gale Norton's office in Washington, D.C., faxed a letter to a handful of Republican senators. It announced a legal settlement with the state of Utah that essentially voided the executive branch's key wilderness-protection powers and reversed three decades of environmental policy. Effective immediately, oil, gas, and mineral concerns would be granted access to more than 200 million acres of public land, stretching from the Mexican border to Alaska.

The about-face had been set in motion two weeks earlier, when Mike Leavitt, the Republican governor of Utah, revived a lawsuit that challenged the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's authority to periodically review its vast holdings and recommend certain parcels to be set aside by Congress as wilderness, protected from drilling, mining, and other commercial activity. Under the old policy, the first step in any development proposal was to consider the land's wilderness potential - an approach that Utah felt unfairly hurt its ability to attract jobs and raise revenue. During the Clinton administration, a judge rejected the state's attempts to have the policy overturned, but when lawyers for Bush's Department of the Interior reviewed the state's amended complaint, they concluded that Leavitt was right.

Conversationists call the decision one of the biggest environmental catastrophes in the history of the West. Administration officials insist critics are being overly dramatic - it's not as if bulldozers will raze all 200 million acres tomorrow. In fact, much of that land is never seen by the public, let alone hiked or camped on. But even if the old BLM policy erred too heavily on the side of conservation, as energy companies claim, the new dispensation repudiates a core American belief that wilderness has an inherent value that can't be measured economically. Although environmental groups are suing the Department of the Interior to have the old policy reinstated, time is not on their side. The way wilderness designations work, for a parcel to quality it needs to have 5,000 contiguous roadless and undeveloped acres. In other words, drill one well or blaze one road through any of these hiking, mountain-biking, or fly-fishing treasures and the chance to preserve them could be lost forever. Whatever your political leanings, that should at least give you pause.



Source: David Case, Men's Journal, July, 2003  

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