updated 10/16/2003 3:48:39 PM ET 2003-10-16T19:48:39

New guidelines issued Monday by the Bush administration could allow oil and gas companies and off-road vehicles on federal lands that had been off-limits to protect their natural qualities. The policy directives implement an agreement Interior Secretary Gale Norton struck with Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt in April to resolve a lawsuit the state filed against the department.

1083488 1083488 ‘They just don’t rise to the level of what we might want to call our crown jewels of wilderness.’ JIM HUGHES THE SETTLEMENT rescinded protection for 3 million acres in Utah and millions of additional acres across the West.

Leavitt has since been nominated by President Bush to head the Environmental Protection Agency. The backroom deal has been questioned by Democrats challenging his fitness to lead the agency.

Under the directives issued Monday, the Bureau of Land Management can still decide to preserve the pristine, natural qualities of lands, but those decisions will be made in a planning process for each parcel and weighed on equal footing against potential mining, grazing, timber and recreation uses, said Jim Hughes, deputy director of the Bureau of Land Management.

Ted Zukoski, an attorney for Earthjustice, said it could open up important, ecologically sensitive stretches of land for development in Utah, Colorado, Arizona and California.

“This is the Bush administration continuing its policy to hand over America’s wild places and open spaces to the timber and oil and gas mining lobbies,” he said.

A wilderness designation prohibits motorized recreation and permanent development of the land, including the building of roads, power lines and pipelines. It is meant to preserve pristine lands “untrammeled by man,” according to the 1964 Wilderness Act.

Hughes said it is likely that some of the areas that environmental groups wanted protected as wilderness will not be protected when the final land use plans are complete.

“They just don’t rise to the level of what we might want to call our crown jewels of wilderness,” he said. But those decisions, he stressed, will be made by local land managers based on input from residents in the region.

Under the Utah lawsuit settlement in April, Norton said it was illegal for the department to consider granting wilderness designation to lands that had not been identified as potential wilderness prior to 1993.

In addition, she rescinded the “non-impairment” designation, applied in the waning days of the Clinton administration, which required the BLM to protect the wilderness values of lands being studied for possible inclusion in wilderness areas.

In Utah, it abolished protection for 3 million acres identified in a 1996 wilderness inventory during the Clinton administration, including red rock slot canyons and rock formations in the southeastern part of the state.

Environmental groups had identified an additional 3 million acres in the state they believed should be considered for wilderness designation but cannot be under the new policy.

The BLM manages 262 million acres in 11 Western states. The new policies do not apply to 89 million acres of BLM land in Alaska and will not affect 22 million acres of land identified for potential wilderness prior to 1993.

That leaves 155 million acres in 10 states subject to the land-use directives, but they aren’t all proposed for wildness protections.

Hughes said the BLM has 65 resource management plans underway and 15 more coming in the next fiscal year.

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