PRICE, Utah — The sculpted buttes of Wild Horse Mesa, the vast escarpment of the Book Cliffs and the soaring ramparts of Upper Desolation Canyon near here have become a prime battleground in the Bush administration's campaign to curb wilderness protection throughout the country.
In 1999, the federal government acknowledged the unique character of the area, where 150 million years of the earth's geologic history unfolds and the forces of nature continue to shape the rugged landscape. The Bureau of Land Management put more than 440,000 acres off-limits to industrial development.
The protection was short-lived.
Within four years, the area was opened to oil and gas exploration. Under the Bush administration, 2.6 million acres of Utah land that had been shielded from development were suddenly open for business.
The actions were part of a sweeping policy shift by Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton with implications far beyond Utah. Not only does the new policy cancel protection of the Utah land, it withholds the interim safeguards traditionally applied to areas with wilderness potential until Congress decides whether to make them part of the national wilderness system.
But what most distinguishes the administration's position is its claim that under applicable law the Interior Department is barred -- forever -- from identifying and protecting wild land the way it has for nearly 30 years.
The nation's wilderness system takes up less than 3% of the lower 48 states. Adding to it often has been a struggle. But if the Bush argument prevails, say conservationists and many Democratic members of Congress, much of America's unprotected wild heritage would be lost to development.
Norton said the changes were necessary to restore balance to the way federal lands would be managed by ensuring that wilderness would not take primacy over other important uses such as energy development.
'No more wilderness'
The Bush policy was set forth in the April 2003 settlement of a lawsuit brought by Utah against the Clinton administration. Utah had lost that case in federal appeals court in 1998 but was allowed to file an amended complaint five years later.
The state sought to revoke wilderness protection for the 2.6 million acres. But, with Bush in office, Utah pursued a more ambitious land-use agenda -- one shared by like-minded politicians in many Western states. That agenda was spelled out by the state's lead lawyer in a memo shortly before the settlement with the Bush administration.
"We need a clear statement," the lawyer, Connie Brooks, wrote to an Interior Department attorney. "No more wilderness."
The memo was obtained recently by environmental lawyers Ted Zukoski of Earthjustice and Leslie Jones of the Wilderness Society through Freedom of Information Act litigation.
The environmentalists, who were kept out of the settlement talks, say the state got what it wanted, and so did wilderness protection opponents everywhere.
The environmental groups have since challenged the accord, arguing that it was an illegal backroom deal that allowed Norton and Mike Leavitt, Utah's governor at the time, to emasculate national wilderness policy. Four months later, Bush appointed Leavitt head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
The case is back in federal appeals court. The outcome, which could affect the course of wilderness policy for years to come, may hinge on an interpretation of the Federal Land Policy Management Act.
The court in 1998 ruled that the "plain language" of the act required the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management to continually review land under its control to see if it merited wilderness protection.
In contrast, the Bush administration has emphasized another section of the act that says federal officials had 15 years after the 1976 act was passed to make recommendations to Congress on what lands should be formally protected.
A definitive interpretation may depend on a ruling by the Supreme Court.
In the meantime, Norton is moving ahead with new plans for proposed wilderness areas, including 43,600 acres in western Colorado that she has opened to oil and gas leasing.
In addition, P. Lynn Scarlett, the Interior Department's assistant secretary for policy management and budget, said the department would no longer provide interim protection for lands nominated for wilderness designation, as it had been doing for decades. Only Congress has that right, she said, and if Congress can't make up its mind about an area, the administration doesn't have the right to manage it indefinitely as a sort of unofficial wilderness.
Scarlett said in an interview that the BLM, as part of its land-use planning responsibilities, could still look for areas with wilderness character. But she emphasized that any protection extended to such places prior to congressional approval would be more flexible and subject to change and even nullification.