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" (healthy and wild but not officially designated as wilderness) 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 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 hearty.
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 Iraq. As planned, the story was buried in the back pages of the papers and the public was blindsided. Ever since Bush replaced Clinton, this has been a familiar story. When unpopular corporate interests like the oil, gas, and timber industries can't work their will through an open, inclusive, and democratic political process or through the usual judicial contests, they simply sue the feds who then settle out of court and give them everything they want but can't get otherwise. That's what happened in April, 2003.
Behind the Zion Curtain
Once the Bush administration declared an all-out war on western public lands, the unique and spectacular mesas and canyons of southern Utah, America's redrock wilderness, became ground zero. Conservation activists from the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Sierra Club, and other groups have been struggling for years to designate 9 million acres of Bureau of Land Management landscape there as wilderness. The Redrock Wilderness Act, with 173 sponsors in Congress, would do that. The members of the Utah delegation, however, aren't on the list of sponsors even though it's in our backyard and polls show that a clear majority of Utahns want more wilderness, not less. Nonetheless, Utah's Republican governors, state legislators, and county commissioners have resisted the Act while attacking the very idea of wilderness designation every chance they get. Old-school patriarchs who believe land is not valuable unless mined, grazed, and drilled, Utah's politicians don't realize that the state's majestic mountains and a string of cherished national parks and monuments -- Zion, Bryce, Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Grand Staircase-Escalante, among others -- are now generating more dollars for the local economy and attracting more new economic activity than extractive industries ever will. Quality of life counts and, ecological considerations aside, wilderness pays. But good ol' cowboys, it seems, can't learn new tricks, so Utah's pols have continued to resist tenaciously.
In the mid-1990s, citizen volunteers conducted a thorough on-the-ground survey of Utah's back-o-beyond and revealed that there are three times as many acres qualifying for wilderness protection as a previous Bureau of Land Management (BLM) survey had shown. Even the BLM agreed that their survey was incomplete, but in 1996 the State of Utah filed a lawsuit challenging then-Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt's authority to re-inventory roughly 2.6 million acres of BLM lands in Utah for their wilderness character. The state also challenged the BLM's decision to protect some of these lands from interim degradation, calling it "de facto" wilderness management. A Utah Federal District Court granted the state's motion to immediately halt the BLM inventory, but in 1998 the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals threw out all but the state's "de facto" wilderness management claim. Conservationists applauded, then the case languished for another four years.
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, America's rarest and most robust lands can now be managed to allow for oil drilling, off-road vehicle abuse, resort development, and mining. In fact, every use is on the table except management for preserving wilderness. It is typical of the Bush administration's practice in general that the public never got a chance to influence such historic and radical decisions which will affect the wilderness lands they collectively own -- lands their children and grandchildren will one day inherit.
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 Utah counties, that as many as 15,000 of these tracks are RS 2477 right-of-ways that can be turned into paved highways, and they have spent $8 million of taxpayer money trying to prove it. Why? In the hope that these "highways" will disqualify otherwise spectacular wild lands from congressional protection. On the interpretation of what is an established right-of-way rests the question of who will control the fate of America's public lands all across the West and whether or not these magnificent landscapes will be protected in their natural state for generations to come.
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 Utah to turn jeep tracks into paved highways after simply notifying the BLM and receiving the agency's approval, with little or no public involvement; it would not require any assessment of the environmental impact of the wholesale giveaway of claimed routes. Anti-wilderness politicians could then carve roads into proposed wilderness areas to disqualify them for protection. Off-road vehicle groups notorious for opening healthy wild lands for abuse by weekend armies of All Terrain Vehicle enthusiasts are now free to pursue these claims in federal court.
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 Alaska), the letter reads:
"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 America from environmental harm. And you have limited the public's ability to be fully informed and to participate in a meaningful way in the planning process for our public lands."
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 California out of the Interior Department's RS 2477 designs. Likewise, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson has written twice to Secretary Norton asking her to preserve the wilderness remaining in that state.
Utah businessman Peter Metcalf of Black Diamond Equipment, a Utah-based climbing and skiing equipment manufacturer, was also angered by the back-room deals. Metcalf, who helped bring the lucrative $24 million Outdoor Retailers trade show to Utah seven years ago, as well as other leaders of the outdoor-recreation industry, met with then-Governor Leavitt in June to discuss their concerns. They told him that Utah may be the wrong place to hold a trade show focused on backcountry recreation and wilderness, now that his secret settlements had jeopardized so much of it. Threatened with a bottom line he understood, Leavitt backpedaled and promised to hold talks with Metcalf and the others, just before bailing out of the state altogether to become Bush's EPA director. In the meantime, attorneys for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Earthjustice, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Wilderness Society have come together to challenge the settlement's legality.
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. And... aargh! Cap'n Leavitt is now over at the EPA!
Does the White House care 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.
Chip Ward is the Assistant Director of the Salt Lake City Public Library System, and author of the forthcoming Hope's Horizon: Three Visions for Healing the American Land (Shearwater/Island Press). He sits on the board of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.