A U.S. District judge Friday lifted a ban that had prevented the public sale, leasing, mining and exchange of 180 million acres controlled by the Bureau of Land Management in 12 Western states, including Utah.
Judge John Pratt lifted the ban, which was issued in 1985 in response to a lawsuit filed by the National Wildlife Federation, an environmental organization.The decision was based on Pratt's ruling that the environmentalists could not show they were harmed by the land sales and therefore had no grounds for filing the suit, BLM spokesman Scott Brayton said.
Brayton said the decision frees the BLM to make land exchanges or sell land to individuals, businesses and public entities where it sees fit.
Affected by the ban are Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
Environmentalists had filed the suit after learning the BLM, in a policy begun under former Interior Secretary James Watt, had been quietly releasing public lands for sale, mining, leasing and exchanging for other privately owned land.
Many of the lands, including part of the Grand Canyon, had been withheld from mining and sale in the past because of their pristine nature, environmentalists said. The land the BLM had proposed to open for mining included 821,000 acres of campgrounds and picnic areas, they said.
The injunction has prevented the filing of mining claims on the lands for the past three years. BLM officials estimate about 7,000 mining claims weren't filed in that period.
The wildlife federation also argued that the BLM was making land exchanges without adequately assessing what use of the land was in the public's best interest.
Pratt's decision left environmentalists reeling, not only because of its implications for the public lands involved, but because of its legal ramifications.
Karl Gawell, a former public lands lobbyist for the wildlife federation, said Pratt's ruling that the federation had no legal standing to file suit may have dealt a crippling blow to future attempts by environmental organizations to bring suit to force the government to follow the law.
"It's a disastrous decision both for the public lands and the laws of this country," Gawell said. "Not only does this mean these lands are going to be reopened for mining without hindrance, but it also sets back the legal standard of who has standing to bring suit."
Gawell called the decision a "victory" for the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a conservative Denver-based organization founded by Watt.