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Norton: The End of Wilderness
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Resource: For more on federal lands, check our Federal & Indian Lands maps.

Source: NY Times

May 4, 2003

The End of Wilderness

From the beginning, President Bush has been far more interested in exploiting the public lands for commercial purposes than in protecting their environmental values. On matters ranging from snowmobiles in Yellowstone to roadless areas in the national forests, his administration has tried steadily to chip away at safeguards put in place by the Clinton administration � largely in an effort to help the oil, gas, timber and mining industries, and often in cavalier disregard for environmental reviews mandated by law. Now comes another devastating blow: The revelation that his Department of the Interior is no longer interested in recommending any of the millions of acres under its jurisdiction for permanent wilderness protection.

The new policy has still not caused much of a stir. Like most of the bad environmental news emanating from this administration, it emerged from the shadows late on a Friday evening. There was no formal announcement � just a few letters to interested senators from Gale Norton describing a legal settlement she had reached earlier that day with the state of Utah. But a close reading of that deal showed it to be a blockbuster � a fundamental reinterpretation of environmental law, and a reversal of four decades of federal wilderness policy.


At issue in the settlement were 2.6 million acres of federal land in Utah that were inventoried by former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and designated as de facto wilderness � that is, land deserving of protection from commercial activity until such time as Congress, which has sole power to designate permanent wilderness, can decide whether to add it to the nation's 107 million wilderness acres. Mr. Babbitt's actions infuriated Utah, which had commercial designs on the land. But the state's efforts to stop Mr. Babbitt in court failed.

About six weeks ago, however, Utah quietly filed an amended complaint, to which the administration quickly acceded. Under the settlement, Ms. Norton not only agreed to withdraw the 2.6 million acres from wilderness consideration but renounced the department's authority to conduct wilderness reviews anywhere in the country. In one stroke, Ms. Norton yanked more than 250 million acres off the table. Not all of those acres, of course, are worthy of permanent wilderness protection. But under the new policy settlement, those that are will no longer be placed in the pipeline for Congressional consideration. Ms. Norton's associates rushed to assure critics that they be will mindful of "wilderness" values in the lands they manage. But the days when interior secretaries aggressively pushed Congress to add to the federal domain are clearly over.

Ms. Norton insists that she is right to rescind the Babbitt designation � and that Mr. Babbitt was wrong to make it in the first place � because the government's authority to identify and manage potential wilderness under the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act has long since expired. That is an extraordinarily cramped interpretation of the law. One key part of the act did in fact expire. But other provisions conferring upon the secretary the right to provide interim wilderness protections remain very much alive, and these are the ones Mr. Babbitt properly invoked.


There is no doubt that the law gives the secretary of the interior the right to identify potential wilderness areas and manage them accordingly. The only question is whether he or she wants to use that authority. And Ms. Norton, to our great dismay, clearly does not.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

Resource: For more on federal lands, check our Federal & Indian Lands maps.

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Michael R. Meuser
Data Research & GIS Specialist is an independent firm specializing in GIS project development and data research. We created the first U.S. based interactive toxic chemical facility maps on the internet in 1996 and we have been online ever since. Learn more about us and our services.

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