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Ninety-Six Members of Congress Urge Bush Administration to Take Decisive Action to Protect Utah's Roadless Areas
WASHINGTON D.C. (April 16, 2008) As the future of Utah’s spectacular wild redrock landscape hangs in the balance, eight U.S. Senators and eighty-seven members of the U.S. House of Representatives urged Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne to take immediate action to protect Utah’s roadless areas from off-road vehicle damage and energy development. The letters to Sec. Kempthorne highlight Congress’ ongoing interest in the future of eleven million acres of public lands on Utah’s Colorado Plateau, and more specifically in the management of nearly three million acres that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has identified as having wilderness character. The BLM’s proposed management “offer[s] virtually no protection for these three million acres.” The letters, led by Senator Dick Durbin (IL) and Congressman Maurice Hinchey (NY-22) request that the BLM opt for a balanced and protective management approach for these roadless lands in the agency’s land use plans that will be finalized this summer.
"One of the most important legacies we will leave to future generations is the preservation of our nation's vital natural resources," Durbin said. "Edward Abbey was right; the idea of wilderness doesn't need defense, only more who are willing to defend it. We can't allow our wild places to become nothing more than memories."
The letters come at a time when the BLM still has the opportunity to change course in the direction of its long-term management plans that have been the object of local and national scrutiny since release of the draft plans in Summer 2007. Previously, members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to the Secretary drawing attention to BLM’s failure to assess off-road vehicle (ORV) route plans and the associated impacts of ORV use on natural and cultural resources on Utah’s roadless lands. Many members of Congress deemed the BLM’s response to that letter unsatisfactory, leading to this supplemental request to the agency.
Although the BLM recognizes approximately three million acres of public lands in Utah as roadless and having wilderness character, the agency’s proposed management allows for uses that do not comport with the roadless, wilderness character of these lands, and that would damage prehistoric cultural artifacts and natural values inherent to these lands. In 2003, then-Secretary of Interior Gale Norton assured the public and Members of Congress that the agency would use certain tools in the agency’s toolbelt to protect these roadless lands in lieu of granting wilderness study areas status. (BLM Instruction Memorandum 2003-275 (Change 1) (Oct. 23, 2003) available on-line at http://www.blm.gov/nhp/efoia/wo/fy03/im2003-275ch1.htm.)
“Once again, the federal government has a choice -- either open up the wilderness quality land in Utah for oil and gas development and off-road vehicles, or safeguard these millions of acres so that generations of future Americans can enjoy this part of our country in its natural, precious state," Hinchey said. "BLM officials must stop being so fixated on helping to reap record profits for their friends in the energy industry and instead do the responsible thing by recognizing that we must establish management plans for Utah's public lands that are protective of some of our country's most treasured acres.”
While the BLM’s identification of the wilderness character of these roadless areas is a step in the right direction, members of Congress have significant concerns about the agency’s proposed management scheme for these spectacular lands which would allow 1,000 miles of off-road vehicle routes in the roadless areas as well as oil and gas development in 86% of these wilderness-quality lands. The letter sent today requests that the BLM, at the very least, manage these roadless lands as described in the agency’s own “Conservation Alternative,” which provides significantly more protection for these wilderness character lands than the agency’s proposed management alternative.
Since the BLM intends to finalize its land use plans for Utah in the coming months, the congressional members have requested a briefing of the agency’s rationale in arriving at its management proposal for the nearly three million acres of wilderness-quality lands.
“We must not create a situation in which years from now we have a generation of Americans left wondering why their ancestors didn't do everything they could to safeguard one of this country's greatest natural wonders and resources,” cautions Mr. Hinchey.