Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Oregon Natural Desert Association Responds to Landmark Court Decision

Just received this from Brent Fenty at ONDA. -hoc

Ninth Circuit Orders Bureau of Land Management to Evaluate Wilderness Values on Public Lands

PORTLAND, ORE. ⎯ The Bureau of Land Management must rewrite its land use plan for southeast Oregon due to a landmark decision from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday. The BLM wrongly refused to evaluate impacts to wilderness values on the public lands in the challenged plan, according to the decision, which overturned a district court decision upholding the plan.

The ruling will have a profound impact on BLM’s management of the public lands it is charged with protecting. The court specifically rejected BLM’s disavowal of “the very idea of wilderness” as one of many resources and values for which the agency must manage. Finding that the law, including BLM’s own guidance documents, unmistakably requires BLM to analyze impacts to a landscape’s wildernessvacated the plan and ordered BLM prepare a new plan.

“Within this remote, wild area lies some of our nation’s most important roadless areas,” said Brent Fenty, executive director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) in Bend. “The court’s ruling validates the position we have taken with BLM from the very start. It is incumbent upon our federal land managers to ensure that these special places get the protection they so richly deserve. Now, BLM must go back and actually evaluate how to protect these remarkable areas of desert wilderness.”

The plan, the Southeastern Oregon Resource Management Plan (SEORMP), governs the federal agency’s management of about 4.6 million acres of public land, mostly in vast Malheur County. It is to guide BLM’s management of some of the most treasured landscapes in Oregon, including the Owyhee Canyonlands, for the next 20 years. The bulk of the lands to be managed under the plan are comprised of fragile high desert and sagebrush steppe.

In addition to its wilderness ruling, the court agreed with ONDA that BLM had not considered reasonable alternatives for off-road vehicle use. Less than 0.5% of the area is closed to damaging ORV use. In its analysis leading up to the plan, BLM never even considered closing more than a fraction (0.8%) of the planning area to ORVs. In fact, every alternative BLM considered would have further reduced the area currently closed to ORVs. Similarly, less than 2% of the area is currently off-limits to livestock grazing.

Jon Marvel, executive director of Western Watersheds Project said: “I hope the BLM will take this excellent legal decision to heart and begin to manage our public lands for all American values instead of just destructive uses like motorized recreation and livestock production.”

In its own 2004 wilderness inventory, ONDA found that 1.3 million acres of the planning area, not including existing Wilderness Study Areas designated by BLM in 1980, possess wilderness character. Congress in 1964 defined “wilderness” on the public lands as consisting of large areas that are roadless, essentially natural, and provide outstanding primitive recreational opportunities. ONDA used BLM’s own wilderness inventory manual to conduct its inventory although the Bush Administration has since revoked the manual. The court’s decision rejects the Administration’s disavowal of wilderness values when managing the public lands. ONDA prepared its inventory after the BLM refused to consider wilderness during the agency’s environmental review for the SEORMP.

“This plan was strongly biased toward the continuation of widespread livestock grazing and motorized access over all other uses and resource values—particularly wilderness, a fragile and finite resource whose very existence BLM didn’t want to even acknowledge,” said Mac Lacy, ONDA’s senior attorney, who argued the case before the court last November. “The court’s decision sends a clear message to the Administration that in this, and particularly any other broad-scale plans it wants to push through this year, federal agencies must fully and transparently evaluate wilderness values like any others on our public lands.”

The plaintiffs, the Oregon Natural Desert Association, joined by the Committee for the High Desert and Western Watersheds Project, filed the lawsuit in July, 2003. The Ninth Circuit’s ruling sets aside the SEORMP and now sends the matter back to BLM to prepare a revised environmental review and a new plan that reconsiders its management decisions in light of its obligation to protect wilderness values.

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