Western States Challenge Feds on Environment

Published June 1, 2003

The Wyoming and Utah state governments have learned a lesson from their sister states in the northeast and are increasingly taking their environmental arguments to the federal courts.

However, unlike states back east, Wyoming and Utah are suing not for increased federal government intervention, but for more free-market approaches and local control over federal environmental regulations.

Wyo. Challenges Species Efforts

Wyoming Attorney General Pat Crank announced on March 26 that the state was preparing to “do battle” with the federal government over several natural resource issues. Of primary importance, according to Crank, is the federal government’s introduction into Wyoming of species that threaten existing ecosystems and land uses.

Wyoming residents are concerned about the federal government’s management of several key species in their state. The introduction of wolves has worried area farmers seeking to protect their farm animals. The proposed listing of a local jumping mouse and local prairie dogs as endangered species would dramatically restrict Goshen, Platte, and Laramie County landowners’ ability to use their property. And, report Wyoming residents, the Bureau of Land Management has proven unable to properly care for wild horse populations it is charged with managing.

“We want a say in what happens with regard to those species within the borders of Wyoming,” said Crank.

In particular, Crank noted residents’ dismay over the federal government’s mismanagement of the wild horse population. “When they don’t manage the wild horse herd properly, it has a dramatic effect on other wildlife. … Those are the kinds of issues we want to take an intelligent look at; how we can solve those kinds of problems.”

State to Retain Eco Attorneys

To better represent Wyoming in federal court, Crank announced plans to hire and retain a number of assistant district attorneys who will focus exclusively on natural resource issues.

State Representative Phil Nicholas (R-Laramie) applauded the announcement. Nicholas asserted that all too often, assistant attorney generals would spend a few years acquiring environmental expertise while working for the state, and then quit their jobs in order to make more money in the private sector. That would leave the state with the dilemma of hiring inexperienced attorneys to handle litigation or paying top dollar to the law firms that had hired former assistant district attorneys.

“It frustrates me that we train lawyers and give them great skills, and then they leave,” said Nicholas. “We can’t replace them immediately so we end up paying them substantial amounts until someone puts the brakes on.”

Under Crank’s proposal, the state would invest more money in assistant district attorney salaries and better working conditions. Although the expenditures would increase direct salary and capital costs, the expenditures would be more than offset by reductions in outside contractor expenses.

“I believe we have the expertise and we can develop the expertise to handle [environmental] litigation in-house,” said Crank.

Utah Sues Federal BLM

Utah has initiated litigation to prevent the federal government from making new wilderness designations within the state.

Once a location has been designated a national wilderness site, formidable obstacles prevent recreational activities, road building, and development activities such as resource recovery. In effect, large land areas become untouchable after receiving national wilderness area designation.

Under the Wilderness Act of 1964, Congress alone has the power to designate national wilderness areas. Utah’s lawsuit argues congressional procedures enacted after 1964 violate the Wilderness Act by granting the Bureau of Land Management the power to create de facto wilderness areas.

Under the procedures being challenged by Utah, BLM is permitted to conduct “inventories” of potential wilderness areas and submit recommendations regarding those areas to Congress. Until and unless Congress acts on BLM’s recommendations, the inventoried land is afforded wilderness protection.

Utah’s lawsuit also seeks to limit the input activist groups have in shaping BLM inventory procedures.

Until recently, a hefty 3.2 million acres of land in Utah had been designated national wilderness. In 1999, however, BLM identified and inventoried millions of additional acres for wilderness protection. To make matters worse, environmental activist groups have inventoried and submitted another 9 million acres of state land to BLM for proposed wilderness designation.

The litigation created a stir among environmental activist groups, who fear the Bush administration will not defend the suit as vigorously as would its predecessors in the Clinton administration. On April 10, a consortium of activist groups filed a motion to intervene in the suit.

“If the government is not going to defend the ability of the Bureau of Land Management to identify wilderness, then we want the opportunity to try to do it for them,” said Earth Justice attorney Jim Angell. “This just isn’t about Utah, but about every Western state with BLM lands. The effects are far, far reaching, and it strikes at everything wilderness advocates have been fighting for years.”

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News. His email address is [email protected].