Support Grows in Congress to Curb Interior Department

WASHINGTON, DC, May 30, 2003 (ENS) - Congressional leaders are writing letters to the Department of the Interior questioning recent anti-wilderness decisions.

In a challenge to the department, 100 members of the U.S. House of Representatives have asked Interior Secretary Gale Norton to express opposition to three department decisions that undermine the protection of wilderness on America's public lands and ask her to reconsider them.

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New York Congressman Maurice Hinchey (Photo courtesy Office of the Congressman)
"It's clear that these decisions are intended to limit congressional options and preclude action by future secretaries to protect some of our most magnificent public lands as wilderness or wilderness study areas," said Representative Maurice Hinchey, a New York Democrat who initiated the letter with Colorado Congressmen Mark Udall and Earl Blumenauer of Oregon.

"Instead of trying to restrict congressional action, the administration should work with Congress to give permanent protection to lands that deserve to be added to the wilderness system," said Udall.

The letter addressed three recent actions by the Interior Department. One was an April 9 memorandum of understanding between the Department of the Interior and the state of Utah to establish a process by which road rights of way will be recognized on federal lands through the use of a loophole, known as Revised Statute 2477 (RS 2477), related to an outdated mining law that has been repealed.

The letter also asked about an April 11 wilderness settlement between the Department of the Interior and the state of Utah in which Norton committed to not allow the Bureau of Land Management to designate Wilderness Study Areas on public lands it manages.

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Interior Secretary Gale Norton (Photo courtesy National Park Service)
And the congressmen question an April 11 letter to Alaska officials in which Secretary Norton stated that, in effect, unless there was "broad support" among Alaska officials, the BLM would never again study the public lands under its stewardship in that state for potential wilderness designation.

"These actions represent a far reaching change in federal land management, and a breathtaking step backwards from the path that began in 1964 when Congress established the wilderness system," said Blumenauer.

Opposition to the Interior Department's anti-wilderness activities has come from a range of leaders over RS 2477, a statute that governs the right of way for construction of roads across publics lands. On May 16, 2003, Mary D. Nichols, Secretary for California's Department of Resources, sent a letter to Secretary Norton requesting that the department not process any RS 2477 claims in California.

Other members of Congress have expressed opposition to the recognition of RS 2477 rights of ways claims using the new "disclaimer" rule. An April 16, 2003 letter from Udall and 86 other House members asked Secretary Norton not to permit the new regulations to be used to process RS 2477 or submerged land claims.

On April 21, 2003, a letter from Senator Jeff Bingaman asked Secretary Norton to take no action on RS 2477 claims until a legal opinion could be obtained by the Comptroller General.

Five senators signed a letter asking the Interior Department to explain why it issued the disclaimer rule and provide information for the department's closed door negotiations with the state of Utah, and justify why the Bureau of Land Management would be the agency responsible for processing claims, even if the rights-of-way cross lands managed by other federal agencies.

"It seems that from East to West, across party lines, there's broad support for wilderness everywhere," said Earthjustice attorney Ted Zukoski. "Everywhere, that is, except for the Bush administration and the extremists it is catering to on this issue."