Uintah County sues over wilderness
Uintah County has filed suit against federal lands officials, who, the county says, are illegally implementing a pro-wilderness agenda.
The lawsuit, filed Friday in the U.S. District Court for Utah, is another skirmish in the ongoing war over Utah wilderness lands.
It accuses U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Bureau of Land Management Director Bob Abbey and his agency of violating a variety of laws, policies and a settlement agreement by opting to treat some lands as wilderness even though those lands should be open to energy development.
"That can have a tremendous effect on the rural counties," said Uintah County Commissioner Mike McKee, calling the issue one of national importance. "You take away the multiple-use of our public lands and it immensely affects the local economy."
A call to the public affairs office of the Interior Department was not returned.
But Steve Bloch, an attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, called the suit "entirely without merit."
"Uintah County's case is hard to understand," he said, noting that many of the issues it raises are already part of past court rulings and a pending case in the federal court in Washington, D.C.
In its complaint, Uintah County describes something like a conspiracy within the Obama administration to ignore the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, the resource management plan for Vernal area BLM lands and a 2003 settlement agreement struck by former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt and then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton.
Instead, the suit says, land managers are illegally using the proposed Red Rock Wilderness Act a controversial proposal before Congress as a guide about what lands to treat as wilderness.
The BLM manages nearly 23 million acres in Utah. About 17 million acres are available for oil and gas development, and the agency has leased about 4.3 million acres of it already. But key parcels that are thought to be rich in natural resources cannot be developed because they are in improperly protected areas, the suit said.
"It's contrary to law," said McKee, who said the Utah Association of Counties might join the suit.
Millions of dollars are at stake for the county, which shares some of the revenue from energy development within its borders.
Bloch said a federal judge has pointed out that the current administration is not bound to adhere to the Leavitt-Norton settlement. He also noted that the agreement gave the BLM discretion to add acreage to a wilderness-like portfolio, if it sees fit.