Stay informed about Utah wilderness
Supporters and wilderness advocates like you play a critical role in the protection of Utah’s spectacular wild places.
Stay informed about Utah wilderness
Supporters and wilderness advocates like you play a critical role in the protection of Utah’s spectacular wild places.
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*Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance is a 501(c)3 nonprofit. All contributions are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law.
Records Show Fish and Wildlife Service Conceded to Habitat Destruction Demanded by Industry Under the Guise of “Conservation”
DENVER— Conservation groups filed a lawsuit today in federal court in Denver challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to deny Endangered Species Act protection to two imperiled wildflowers that live only on oil shale formations in Colorado and Utah. Oil shale and tar sands mining and traditional oil and gas drilling threaten 100 percent of known White River beardtongue populations and over 85 percent of the known Graham’s beardtongue populations.
In August 2013, the Service proposed to provide Endangered Species Act protection to the wildflowers and nearly 76,000 acres of their essential habitat, recognizing the threat posed by mining and drilling. One year later—after lobbying by industry and its supporters, including the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) and Uintah County—the Service reversed-course and denied Endangered Species Act protections. The Service based its decision on a 15-year “conservation agreement” negotiated behind closed doors with pro-industry stakeholders.
Public records obtained by plaintiffs in today’s lawsuit show that the conservation agreement purposefully excluded wildflower habitat from protection to accommodate oil shale mining and drilling. SITLA’s Associate Director and Chief Legal Counsel, John Andrews, described the agreement as follows:
“The basic concept is you’ve got a 15-year agreement that’s going to buy for all of our miners the ability to strip mine and destroy any [wildflowers] that are located on those sites in exchange for some conservation” on lands “that wouldn’t be disturbed” anyway.
In its proposal to list the species, the Service recognized oil shale mining in the wildflowers’ habitat as one of the primary threats justifying the need for Endangered Species Act protections. FWS found that that development of just two planned oil shale projects in Utah by the Enefit and Red Leaf corporations would have substantial impacts and would reduce the viability of the species. But the conservation agreement denies protections on private and state lands slated for oil shale development during the 15-year term of the agreement, including those owned or leased by Enefit and Red Leaf.
“The conservation agreement is a giveaway to the fossil fuel industry,” said Robin Cooley, an Earthjustice attorney representing the conservation groups. “Although the Fish and Wildlife Service previously identified habitat that was essential to the survival of these wildflowers, the agency rolled over during negotiations and sacrificed more than 40% of this essential habitat, including lands the oil shale industry plans to strip mine in the next 15 years.”
“The Endangered Species Act requires the Service to make decisions based on science, not politics,” said Megan Mueller, senior biologist with Rocky Mountain Wild. “The science here is clear, these wildflowers must be protected from strip mining and drilling.”
“The Endangered Species Act has an incredible record of saving species—but it can only work if we use it. We’ve known for decades that these wildflowers need federal protections if they’re going to survive,” said Michael Saul, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s shameful to see the Fish and Wildlife Service forego that effective tool just for the profits of one industry.”
“These rare and beautiful wildflowers are a treasured part of our natural heritage and we need to protect them for future generations to enjoy,” said Tony Frates with the Utah Native Plant Society. “Rather than ensuring their survival through the proven protections of the Endangered Species Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service opted for a conservation agreement that paves the way for destruction of large populations of these two species.”
Earthjustice filed today’s lawsuit challenging the Service’s failure to list the beardtongues under the Endangered Species Act on behalf of Rocky Mountain Wild, Center for Biological Diversity, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Utah Native Plant Society, Grand Canyon Trust, Western Resource Advocates, and Western Watersheds Project.
 An audio recording of Mr. Andrew’s presentation at the SITLA Board Retreat, April 16-17 (Part 3), is available through Utah’s public notice website, at http://www.utah.gov/pmn/files/archive/101711.mp3 (1:21:30–:59).
Dismisses Utah claims to 6 routes and concludes width of 3 other routes must be revisited
Salt Lake City, Utah (December 3, 2014) – Yesterday, a unanimous three-judge panel of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a key decision in the State of Utah’s ongoing roads (RS 2477) litigation.
The appeals court cut in half a 2013 decision by a district court judge to grant Utah and Kane County 12 so-called RS 2477 rights-of-way. The appeals court concluded that it lacked jurisdiction over 6 of the 12 routes because they were open for motorized travel pursuant to federal land use plans. The court also reversed the district court’s “scope” (width) determinations regarding 3 other routes located in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and remanded for further proceedings.
“This decision is a significant set-back for the State of Utah’s effort to wrest control of more than 14,000 claimed ‘highways’ across federally managed lands in the state,” said Stephen Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “After more than 10 years of litigation and millions of taxpayer dollars, Utah has little to show for its efforts. Of the 17 claimed RS 2477 rights-of-way litigated in two separate cases all the way to the Tenth Circuit, the State has established title to only 6 routes, leaving 13,983 routes to go.”
The appeals court also rejected an argument advanced by conservation groups that the State’s RS 2477 claim in the Paria-Hackberry wilderness study area was filed too late and after the relevant 12-year statute of limitations had run.
After being denied intervention in these proceedings, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and The Wilderness Society participated as amicus curiae before both the district court and court of appeals. The Sierra Club, Grand Canyon Trust, and National Parks Conservation Association also participated as amicus curiae in separate filings before the appeals court.
A copy of the decision is available here.
Originally filed in 2008, Kane County and the State of Utah expended millions of dollars to pursue 16 claimed rights-of-way in this lawsuit. Several of the claims are located in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and one is within a BLM wilderness study area.
This case is one of 25 filed by the State of Utah and its counties that claim title to approximately 14,000 dirt trails and roads across the state. Many of these claims are little more than stream bottoms and old mining tracks in the desert that serve no practical purpose whatsoever. The State is relying on a provision in the Mining Act of 1866 to try and establish its claimed rights-of-way.
If Illegal Land Seizure Were to Occur, State Would Profit Only Through Heavy Industrialization of Utah’s Wildlands
For Immediate Release. Contact: David Garbett, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, 801-428-3992
Salt Lake City – Today, a team of economists from three Utah universities released a report which shows that if Utah were to take public lands from the federal government it would have to privatize them or pursue heavy development in order to make a profit.
In 2012, the Utah Legislature passed a bill demanding that the federal government turn over almost all public land in the state by the end of 2014. The following year, it authorized a study to determine whether doing so made economic sense. This study was released to the public today.
However, the economics of the Legislature’s claims to federal public lands is irrelevant. Scholars at the state’s own law school concluded that Utah has no legal right to the federal public lands. The Legislature’s legal counsel also warned that the courts would likely find these efforts unconstitutional. (The warning is found in the legislative review note attached to the bottom of the draft legislation.) In fact, the Utah Constitution forever disclaims any interest in public lands within the state’s boundaries. (Utah Constitution, Art. 3, Section 1, Second Clause.)
“This study shows that if the state of Utah seizes public lands owned by all Americans the only way it will be able to afford them is to sell them off or destroy them through heavy development,” remarked David Garbett, a staff attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “When will the Legislature realize that the public does not want to see the Wasatch Mountains barricade with “No Trespassing” signs, the Book Cliffs lost to tar sand strip mines, or Arches National Park ringed with oil and gas development?”
Although this study is born of the pipedreams of schemers and historical revisionists, it provides important warnings regarding the economic realities of such a land takeover. Among other things, it shows that if the state were to seize federal lands, under most scenarios, it would be a net money loser. Far from bankrolling Utah’s public schools, as proponents of the legislation claim, this takeover would serve to enrich private interests but rob all Americans of their priceless natural heritage.
Allege Utah BLM illegally piecemealing oil and gas development
Contact: Landon Newell, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, 801.428.3991; Devorah Ancel, Sierra Club Environmental Law Program, 415.977.5721
SALT LAKE CITY – Last Friday, October 31, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and Sierra Club challenged a decision by the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Moab field office to approve a natural gas gathering pipeline system on public lands close to Dead Horse Point State Park and the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park. These lands are remarkably scenic, are visited by hundreds of thousands of people annually from around the country and the world, and are important to Moab’s tourism economy.
The gathering pipeline system was proposed by Fidelity Exploration & Production, the primary oil and gas operator in this area. The system can only operate when connected to another pipeline project that BLM approved last year, known as the “Dead Horse Lateral.” Rather than analyze the environmental impacts of these two projects together, BLM piecemealed its review into separate analyses. Federal environmental laws prohibit the agency from taking such an approach. Instead, BLM was required to prepare a comprehensive analysis that considered both pipeline proposals as well as associated development activities.
“BLM’s decision to consider Fidelity’s gathering pipeline system in isolation, and not take into account the environmental impacts from other projects necessary to make the gathering system work, is a textbook violation of environmental laws,” said Landon Newell, staff attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “As a result, BLM significantly underplayed the impacts from swelling oil and gas development in this remarkable landscape.”
Oil and gas development has significantly expanded over the past five years with dozens of new wells already drilled or planned. Along with that drilling, Fidelity has conducted intrusive seismic tests and installed other oil field infrastructure. Heavy truck traffic is now common along Utah State Highway 313 leading to Canyonlands National Park, Dead Horse Point State Park, and the region’s scenic redrock country.
“The ever-expanding oil and gas extraction in the Big Flat region requires the BLM to conduct a full analysis of the numerous impacts to this iconic landscape,” said Moab resident William Rau. “I am highly concerned over the safety of the pipeline, oil wells and increased heavy truck traffic, and the dangers they pose to the 500,000 annual visitors to the area.”
In its third quarter earnings report, issued Monday, November 3, 2014 Fidelity’s parent company the MDU Resources Group announced its intention to sell Fidelity Exploration and Production.
SUWA and Sierra Club’s challenge was filed with the BLM’s State Office in Salt Lake City.
Contend that state law bars Attorney General from bringing Tooele County RS 2477 lawsuit
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Stephen Bloch, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, 801.859.1552 (cell) or 801.428.3981 (office)
Brent V. Manning & Jess M. Krannich, Manning Curtis Bradshaw & Bednar LLC, 801.363.5678
(July 29, 2014) Salt Lake City, UT: Today a Tooele County resident and taxpayer, along with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, filed a lawsuit in Third District Court (state court) alleging that the State Attorney General acted illegally when he brought a federal lawsuit claiming more than 2,400 miles of alleged RS 2477 “roads” in Tooele County. The lawsuit asks the court to bar the State from pursuing or funding its federal lawsuit seeking title over RS 2477 “roads” in Tooele County and to declare that the Attorney General acted illegally when he brought the case in the first place.
“The State’s lawsuit threatens some of Tooele County’s wildest places, including the Cedar Mountain Wilderness and North Stansbury and Indian Peaks proposed wilderness areas,” said Michael Abdo, a Tooele County resident. “These are places I go with friends, family, and Boy Scouts to appreciate their natural beauty and quiet. The State’s attempt to establish ‘roads’ in these areas is misguided, and a waste of taxpayer dollars.”
In the past decade the State legislature has spent millions of dollars in an ill-advised effort to claim that alleged “roads,” including faded two-tracks and stream bottoms, are actually State highways that can be improved and paved to a minimum width of 66 feet. Some are virtually impossible to locate. Often the routes lead to no landmark or destination, and are not part of any reasonably described transportation network. The legislature funds its RS 2477 litigation campaign from millions allocated to the Public Lands Policy Coordination Office, the Constitutional Defense Council, and the Attorney General’s Office.
“The State’s RS 2477 litigation is part of its larger effort to take control of public lands and block congressional wilderness designation,” said Stephen Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “If successful, this lawsuit will bring an end to the state’s expensive and senseless campaign.”
State law bars the State from bringing a lawsuit claiming title to real property unless its right or title accrued within seven years of the filing of the case. Here, the State’s alleged title to RS 2477 rights-of-way accrued no later than 1976, when Congress repealed that statute. Thus, the State’s power to bring a lawsuit seeking title over RS 2477 “roads” in Tooele County lapsed more than 25 years before the State filed its case.
The State’s and Toole County’s lawsuit is brought directly contrary to Utah law and the constitutional requirement that the State Attorney General act in accordance with Utah law. According to the plain language of the applicable Utah statute: “The state may not bring an action against any person for or with respect to any real property, its issues or profits, based upon the state’s right or title to the real property, unless: (1) the right or title to the property accrued within seven years before any action or other proceeding is commenced […]”Utah Code Ann. § 78B-2-201 (emphasis added). Nonetheless, the State is disregarding its own laws to pursue an anti-wilderness agenda.
It is popular in this state to criticize the courts if they do not follow the plain language of the law as enacted by the Utah legislature. Here, the language chosen by the legislature is clear: “the state may not bring an action … unless the right … to the property accrued within seven years…” Notwithstanding this clear prohibition, the Attorney General and Toole County are spending millions of dollars in direct violation of Utah law to pursue what Public Land Policy Coordination Office Director Kathleen Clarke recently described as “the largest litigation ever taken on by the State of Utah.” With this lawsuit, Mr. Abdo and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance seek to stop the wasteful and illegal expenditure of taxpayer money, the apparent object of which is to disqualify lands for Wilderness designation.
The State’s RS 2477 lawsuit in Tooele County is one of more than twenty-five (25) lawsuits filed by the State of Utah and its counties claiming more than 14,000 rights of way totaling nearly 35,000 miles of dirt trails and routes on public lands. Taken together, this massive litigation threatens several national parks and monuments as well as iconic Utah wilderness landscapes.
|Click to view map of RS 2477 claims