From: Jon Sarche, Associated Press
Published January 13, 2005 12:00 AM

Environmentalists, Feds Face off over Wilderness Deal

DENVER — Environmental groups asked a federal appeals court Wednesday to throw out a deal that removed environmental protections for millions of acres of potential wilderness areas around the country.


The deal was reached in 2003 after secret negotiations between then-Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt and the Interior Department.


Jim Angell of the environmental group Earthjustice told a three-judge panel of the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday that the settlement was illegal.


"It's a fundamental rewrite affecting millions of acres across the country of wilderness-quality lands and it was disposed of via a back-room deal," Angell said outside the courtroom.


Attorneys for Utah and the federal government told the judges they do not have the legal authority to review the agreement because some aspects are still pending in lower court. They also argued that the settlement simply reversed a Clinton administration policy that they said gave the Bureau of Land Management too much authority to put some land off limits to oil and gas exploration and other development.


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Since the deal, Leavitt was named chief of the Environmental Protection Administration and now is President Bush's choice to head the department of Health and Human Services.


The settlement between Leavitt and the Interior Department was the result of a 1996 lawsuit in which Utah sued the government to challenge a Clinton administration order that could have led to interim wilderness protection of 2.6 million acres in Utah.


Source: Associated Press


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