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EPA Nominee Charged With Anti-Enviro Backroom Deals

EPA Head Christie Whitman Quits Bush Cabinet
(ENS) -- Utah Governor Mike Leavitt has been nominated to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but it is his policies involving the Interior Department that have brought the most criticism from environmentalists opposed to his nomination.

Critics say Leavitt's public lands record is one of backroom deals that favor development interests over environmental protection and warn that the Utah Republican's rhetoric does not match the reality.

"Mike Leavitt is no friend of the environment, national parks, or open space," said Ted Zukoski, an attorney with the nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice.

The Bush administration has touted Leavitt as a consensus builder who can bring together competing interests to forge sensible environmental solutions. But critics cite two recent settlements Leavitt brokered with the Interior Department as evidence that he has no problem shutting out the public and favoring developers over the environment.

"Leavitt has been consistent in moving to pave, drill, pump, bulldoze, log, and drain many of America's most pristine and awe inspiring natural lands through secret, backroom deals," Zukoski said.

One settlement stems back to a suit by Utah against the Interior Department in 1996 over the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) reinventory of wilderness quality lands.

That reinventory identified three million more acres in the state as suitable for wilderness protection than the agency's 1980s inventory had identified.

Although Utah's legal case was largely rejected by the courts, Leavitt renewed the challenge in March. The Utah governor and the Bush administration quickly brokered a settlement that revokes BLM's authority to conduct wilderness inventories in any state or to establish new Wilderness Study Areas in any state.

The settlement also revokes the Wilderness Inventory Handbook, which is a set of guidelines for BLM managers to use in assessing wilderness protections for federal lands affected by proposed resource development. The settlement also disallows the use of a 1999 comprehensive statewide BLM reinventory of Utah's public lands.

The deal effectively removes wilderness as one of the multiple uses BLM is required to analyze when making land use decisions, critics say. Conservationists are appealing the settlement, which not only affects Utah but some 200 million acres of public lands managed by the BLM across the United States.

"Leavitt cut the public out of the process while gutting federal environmental law behind closed doors," said Earthjustice attorney Jim Angell. "This is hardly the attitude we should be looking for in an EPA head."

The other settlement Leavitt brokered with the Bush administration's Interior Department codified an interpretation of a 19th century mining law that critics say will allow private interests, as well as state and local governments, to bulldoze through federal lands -- including national parks and monuments.

On April 8, 2003, Interior Department Secretary Gale Norton signed a memorandum of understanding with the state of Utah to establish a process to use the 1866 law -- known as RS2477 -- to recognize rights of way across BLM lands. The law was intended to grant the right to construct and use highways across public lands that were not otherwise reserved or protected for other public use.

Although repealed in 1976, claims on rights of way prior to the repeal can still be made. When announcing the settlement, both Norton and Leavitt said it only applies to existing publicly traveled and regularly maintained roads.

Environmentally sensitive areas and national parks would not be subjected to RS 2477 claims, according to the memo of understanding.

But conservationists are not convinced and some have challenged Leavitt to prove them wrong.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) has asked Leavitt to renounce the RS 2477 claim that could allow a new road to be built through Salt Creek Canyon in Canyonlands National Park. Leavitt has not responded to SUWA's letter, which was sent Friday, and his office did not return calls for comment today.

"We are calling on Governor Leavitt to walk the walk," said Larry Young, executive director of SUWA.

The local county wants the road to increase access for off-road vehicles, but conservationists say the claim is for a streambed that should not qualify as a legitimate RS 2477 claim. The RS 2477 route up Salt Creek Canyon runs in and out of this stream and at times follows the stream bed itself. The route does not connect locations, conservationists say, but simply dead ends in a tributary canyon.

And in a notice published last week in the Federal Register, the National Park Service determined that motorized vehicle use in Salt Creek impairs park resources, including polluting the waters, ruining important streamside vegetation, and displacing wildlife.

The notice finalizes the closure of Salt Creek Canyon in Canyonlands National Park to motorized vehicle use after a decade of controversy.

The park service, in the notice, also explains that the claim by the state and the county that Salt Creek is a state "highway" under RS2477 was unfounded.

The agency determined that "it had not been shown that a valid right of way was constructed during the period when the lands were unreserved."

SUWA and other conservation groups also criticize Leavitt for favoring off-road vehicle interests and for forging ahead with a $415 million highway project that was rejected by federal court because of inadequate environmental assessment.

Young acknowledges that the EPA is not the key agency on most public land questions, but says highlighting Leavitt's public lands policy illustrates "how his rhetoric is disconnected from his actions."

"If you like Bush's environmental record, you will like what Leavitt will do at EPA," Young told ENS.

How successful critics are in painting a negative portrait of Leavitt's environmental record remains to be seen -- confirmation hearings in the Senate are expected to take place in September.

Many of Leavitt's fellow governors have said this weekend at the National Governor's Association annual meeting that they support his nomination, and he appears to have solid support among Congressional Republicans.

© 2003 Environment News Service and reprinted by special permission

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Albion Monitor August 20, 2003 (

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