- Associated Press - Friday, June 6, 2014

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - If a county in eastern Utah wins a legal bid for more say in the fate of public lands there, thousands of acres risk being leveled by industry and trampled by ATVs, a handful of environmental groups said Friday in federal court.

Attorneys representing the groups and the federal Bureau of Land Management asked U.S. District Judge Dee Benson to throw out the lawsuit that has been pending since 2010. The groups include the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, The Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club and the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance.

If the county wins, “it’s gonna mean that these last special places can’t be protected for future generations,” Steve Bloch of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance said in a phone interview. “This is a sweeping lawsuit that would have implications in Utah and throughout the West.”

Attorneys for Uintah County and the state of Utah say that criticism is beside the point. The Bureau of Land Management has sidestepped protocol to prolong the waiting period for companies applying to begin operations there, they said Friday.

The agency has blocked 385,000 acres of public lands from industrial development, depriving the county of revenues, and it didn’t seek input from local officials or the public beforehand, said Constance Brooks, an attorney for Uintah County.

“You don’t just do it under the table, ad hoc,” Brooks said.

The state, she said, would benefit from “at least having an opportunity to participate in the process.”

Brooks said several leases to develop land have been deferred, but she added she could not say how many.

The federal agency has carried out an unofficial plan to create designated wilderness areas, she said, breaking a 2008 agreement with the county and an earlier agreement with the state.

But delaying final approval on a lease for a mining or other company is part of the Bureau of Land Management’s job, said Earthjustice attorney Heidi McIntosh. The delays allow federal officials to evaluate potential effects on farmland, air quality, wildlife and other factors, she added.

“The BLM does have this broad authority” for any given acre of public land, she said. “It can decide to protect it. It can decide not to protect it. Sometimes, the conservation groups are going to be on the short end of the stick.”

Under federal law, only Congress has the right to add acres to the National Wilderness Preservation System.

But the Bureau of Land Management has the authority to rule out a proposed oil or gas operation if it has good reason to believe Congress will one day add the area to that list, McIntosh said.

The judge, Dee Benson, has not yet issued a ruling on the groups’ request to dismiss the case.

The lawsuit is one of the latest in which at least one Utah county and the state challenge federal control of public lands. Last summer, Juab County agreed to give up some of its rights-of-way claims and to limit motorized vehicle use on three roads as part of a settlement resolving its claim to manage rugged backcountry roads.

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