Utah sues federal government again, this time over land conservation policy | News, Sports, Jobs

Utah sues federal government again, this time over land conservation policy | News, Sports, Jobs

Kyle Dunphey, Utah News Dispatch

Comb Ridge in Bears Ears National Monument is pictured on May 10, 2018.

Utah is suing the federal government again, this time over a new public lands policy that allows the leasing of land managed by the Bureau of Land Management for conservation purposes.

This policy, known as the Public Lands Rule, was adopted without proper environmental review by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Department of the Interior, the state claims in its lawsuit, which was filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Utah. The state of Wyoming is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

“The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires agencies planning a major action to carefully consider potential environmental impacts before implementing it,” the complaint states. “This case arises from the Bureau of Land Management’s failure to meet this NEPA obligation.”

In a 34-page complaint, lawyers for both states are asking the court to overturn the regulation and issue a temporary injunction for the duration of the trial, which essentially renders the regulation null and void for the time being.

The rule was finalized in April and went into effect on June 10. Similar to how the BLM currently leases its land for mineral mining, energy production, recreation or grazing, the new rule will establish conservation leases.

Now groups can purchase a restoration lease, which is used to improve habitat and restore or preserve land – and a compensatory lease, which is used to offset existing developments and projects on BLM land.

As usual, the measure was met with praise from environmental groups but disapproval from Utah politicians, who expressed concern that the rule would lock up land and hinder traditional uses such as grazing or commercial horse feeding.

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said this was “devastating” for the state.

“It allows the BLM to unnecessarily restrict access to millions of acres of land by taking a low-key, museum-like management approach,” Reyes said in a statement. “The rule redefines ‘conservation’ or ‘non-use’ and prioritizes it over all other legal and productive uses, directly violating existing federal law and undermining the intent of the multi-use policy as called for in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.”

Meanwhile, Steve Bloch, legal director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, reiterated his support for the settlement on Tuesday. In an email, he wrote that the lawsuit “shows how un-serious Utah’s elected officials are about addressing the challenges facing public lands.”

“This lawsuit has no bearing on the majority of Utahns who support environmental protection and know that climate change is a serious problem,” Bloch said, calling the lawsuit “disappointing but predictable.”

Bloch said he looks forward to seeing the “positive impact” of this rule on Utah’s public lands, which make up about 70 percent of the state.

“The rule will ensure that conservation remains at the forefront as the BLM goes about its day-to-day work of managing some of the most intact and ecologically significant public lands in the country,” Bloch said.

Utah Governor Spencer Cox had been hinting for months that he would take legal action against the law. This week, the law took shape. Lawyers argued that the BLM had made an “unreasonable” interpretation of federal guidelines in applying a categorical exemption, allowing the agency to forgo an environmental impact statement normally required under NEPA.

“By relying on this unreasonable interpretation as a reason for failing to conduct a proper NEPA review, BLM acted arbitrarily and capriciously,” the complaint states.

The complaint also accuses the BLM of ignoring concerns from various groups during the public comment period, including the state of Utah, Wyoming politicians, mining and solar companies, and more.

In Utah, the rule could place a financial burden on the state’s Division of Wildlife Resources and the Department of Agriculture and Food, state attorneys claim, because the risk of “other persons or companies” leasing land for conservation is so great that the state plans to buy up all available parcels.

“These agencies intend to bid for every redevelopment and rehabilitation lease that becomes available,” the lawsuit states. That could cost taxpayers up to $5 million, according to court documents.

Earlier this year, outgoing Republican Representative and current Senate candidate John Curtis introduced a bill to repeal this rule. The bill, called the Western Economy Security Today Act, passed the House of Representatives in April after a bipartisan vote.

Utah News Dispatch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news source covering government, politics and the issues that most impact the lives of Utahns.


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