Court: Ore. land plan should consider wilderness
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Federal appeals judges have told the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to take another look at its plans for about 4.5 million acres in Eastern Oregon — and to consider wilderness values when it does.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Monday the bureau's plans for the area are too narrow.
The judges say the bureau should include in its management plans areas where grass, sagebrush and juniper are reclaiming unused roads.
And it said the bureau should manage lands with an eye toward preserving their wilderness characteristics — even if they haven't been designated as wilderness areas.
As a result, the appeals court says, the agency must redo a management plan in the works since 1995. That plan, in turn, was a response to a law passed in 1976 that required federal agencies to make plans for the lands under their control.
The suit was brought in 2003 by the Oregon Natural Desert Association. It involves land in three counties, Malheur, Grant and Harney, where the bureau leases extensive tracts of grazing land to ranchers.
The environmental group said the bureau in 1980 compiled an inventory of lands in the area with potential to be declared formally as wilderness areas.
But by the late 1990s, the group said, another 1.3 million acres had become eligible for consideration for wilderness because what once were roads turned into little-used ways, small reservoirs had dried up and land infested by invasive species had been returned to native vegetation.
The bureau, the court said, insisted that its wilderness study ended in 1980 and didn't need to be reopened. A trial judge agreed.
But, the appeals court said, "Wilderness characteristics are not simply a checklist" to be used for a one-time inventory.
Instead, the court said, the bureau is obligated continuously to manage land with wilderness characteristics. It said that even if the Congress hadn't designated such land as wilderness, the bureau could protect it against damaging uses such as mining, grazing and off-road vehicle use.
A spokesman for the bureau, Michael Campbell, said it had not decided whether to appeal.
He said land in Eastern Oregon doesn't change quickly, but, "That said, we're always willing to look at new information."
Representatives of the Oregon Natural Desert Association did not immediately return phone calls.