Environmental group says BLM failed to explain methods

By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI

Capital Press

An environmental group claims the federal government failed to justify a key component of its plan for managing 1.6 million acres of public land in Oregon.

The resource management plan guides grazing and other activities overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in the Steens Mountain area of southeastern Oregon.

The Oregon Natural Desert Association' lawsuit against the agency primarily centers on BLM's inventory of "wilderness resources" in the region. Oral arguments in the case were heard on July 12 in Portland before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Such inventories are an important aspect of formulating a management plan, as they establish a wilderness baseline against which environmental impacts are measured.

When the BLM was developing the plan, the Oregon Natural Desert Association submitted a 2,000-page report that detailed additional parcels of land the group wanted in the wilderness baseline.

"Wilderness is a finite resource, a fragile resource," said Peter Lacy, attorney for the group. "Once it's gone, it can't be recovered."

The BLM disagreed with most of the group's conclusions and only included one of the suggested parcels in its inventory, prompting the group to file a lawsuit in 2006.

A federal judge rejected most of the group's arguments in 2007, finding that -- aside from an insufficiently thorough transportation strategy -- the plan did not violate federal environmental laws.

ONDA appealed that decision to the 9th Circuit, claiming that BLM's environmental review of the plan left out important information about the agency's decision-making process.

The group claims BLM didn't adequately explain why certain parcels were excluded from the wilderness baseline.

"The disclosure of the information needs to be substantive," Lacy said. "There's nothing substantive. There's nothing for the public to review and critique."

David Shilton, an attorney representing the BLM, countered that the agency had valid reasons for its wilderness inventory decisions.

However, the BLM isn't required to detail its entire land classification process as part of the environmental review -- otherwise, the review document would become unwieldy and useless, he said.

"The discussion is supposed to be succinct," Shilton said. "It's not supposed to be an encyclopedia."

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