We’ve known for months that the State of Utah plans to bring a reckless suit against the Department of Interior to get claim to 18,000 “routes” across federal lands–most of them dirt tracks, dry washes and cow paths. Today we learned members of Congress are aware of it too, and they’re not happy.
Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) and Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) defended Utah’s wild lands today in a budget hearing before the House Natural Resources Public Lands Subcommittee, questioning Bureau of Land Management Director Bob Abbey about the strength of the agency’s resolve to fight the lawsuit.
“I’d like to know whether the bureau intends to vigorously defend against this attack,” said Holt. “Anti-wilderness folks have been known to say ‘Roads are the antidote to wilderness’ as if wilderness is something that needs to be stamped out.”
Abbey answered that “ we need the opportunity to do so,” but he indicated that the agency’s preference would be for Utah to drop the lawsuit in favor of Title V rights-of-way, an administrative mechanism prescribed by Congress that allows parties to claim rights-of-way on federal lands through an authorized, public process.
“Let me just say, please be vigorous,” Holt reiterated.
When it came to claims in designated wilderness and Wilderness Study Areas, however, Abbey was more clear, insisting they would not be honored.
“Those are not roads, or [the areas] wouldn’t have been declared wilderness and WSAs,” Abbey said.
Grijalva, in turn, asked about the need for increases in law enforcement on the 18,000 road claims. Abbey said that the agency didn’t need help and cooperated with local law enforcement, but it’s hard to square that with local Utah law enforcement’s recent penchant for aiding scofflaws and “investigating” the BLM for closing roads.
It’s a good sign that Holt, Grijalva and other members of Congress are keeping an eye on the irresponsible litigation coming out of Utah and pushing for a robust defense of America’s wild, public lands. Next time Director Abbey visits the Hill to discuss the budget, we hope he’ll acknowledge their deep concern about this issue and clearly explain just how “vigorously” the agency will defend not only the wilderness and WSAs that make up the National Landscape Conservation System, but the millions of acres of unprotected wilderness-quality lands that make up the BLM’s spectacular Utah portfolio.