SALT LAKE CITY — In what may be the nation's first legal challenge to a controversial "wild lands" decision, the Utah Association of Counties and the Uintah County Commission filed a lawsuit Wednesday against Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
The complaint in federal court in Utah challenge's Salazar's Secretarial Order 3310, which they assert upends a settlement agreement reached by then-Gov. Mike Leavitt and the Department of Interior over such land designations.
Those decisions of declaring federal lands "wild" because of their characteristics are strictly within the purview of Congress, the suit contends, based on the settlement agreement reached in 2003.
Salazar issued the order in December, much to the alarm of elected officials in Western states that depend on extraction industries, grazing and the "multi-use" approach to generate revenue.
Those who jumped on the criticism bandwagon have included Gov. Gary Herbert, who said the late-December decision was an unwelcome Christmas present that "blindsided" him. He has flown to Washington, D.C., to express his concern and has been joined by members of Utah's congressional delegation in voicing opposition to the policy shift.
In the order, Salazar directs the Bureau of Land Management to conduct a "re-inventory" of public lands to assess them for potential "wild lands" designations.
Any reclassification has the potential to impact 385,000 acres of public lands primarily located in Uintah County and managed by the BLM.
The suit says more than half of the natural gas and oil produced in Utah comes from Uintah County, and the county receives about 40 percent of the revenues paid to the state. Beyond the impact to Uintah County, the suit says the shift could impact 22.9 million acres of federal surface lands and 22 million acres of "mineral estate" in Utah.
"... Secretarial Order 3310 gives unfettered discretion to determine which public lands will be considered as (wilderness study areas)" the suit contends, and subject to an array of restrictions that would impair multiple ways to use the land.
Those projects that could be on the chopping block, according to the suit, include development of solar and wind energy resources, including the installation of a wind energy transmission line, and right-of-way access to roads under contention called RS2477. Other county conservation efforts made throughout the state would suffer setbacks due to limited access and control imposed by a wild-lands classification.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, issued a statement late Wednesday, commending the groups that brought the lawsuit.
"The only thing transparent about this administration is that the hard-working people of Utah, like so many others across the country, can see right through the Wild Lands policy for what it really is — an end run around Congress to impose restrictive new policies on millions of acres of federal land."
The suit asks to the judge to set aside the order and its implementing manuals by declaring them "without lawful authority and arbitrary and capricious."