PHOENIX -- A federal appeals court has rejected a bid by environmental groups to force the Bureau of Land Management to do more to protect two national monuments in Arizona.
In an unsigned opinion, the three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sad there was nothing inherently wrong or illegal with BLM permitting "moderate to minor damage" to some objects in the Grand Canyon-Parashant and Vermilion Cliffs national monuments.
The judges acknowledged that the proclamations in 2000 by President Clinton creating both monuments say they were established "for the purpose of protecting the objects" within the monuments. But they said the proclamations also allow other uses in the 1.3 million acres in northern Arizona, including grazing and public visitation.
"BLM interpreted the proclamations to permit balancing the protection of monument objects with other uses, rather than require absolute protection of each individual object," the court wrote. "Giving the deference we owe to BLM's interpretation, we conclude that is a reasonable one."
According to court records, the resource management plans for the two monuments close 89,598 acres in Vermilion Cliffs to motorized and mechanized vehicle use and 285,647 acres in Grand Canyon-Parashant.
The plans also close 360 miles of routes that were in use prior to the management plans, a figure put at about 18 percent of existing routes. It also says that the proclamations specifically allow continued grazing -- and that the management plans do not designate any new grazing allotments.
Instead, they keep in grazing use about 34,000 acres in Parashant.
It also says that prior to grazing, ranchers must obtain permits from BLM which are subject to additional regulatory review.
In their appellate ruling, the judges said the National Historic Preservation Act requires BLM to "make a reasonable and good faith effort" to identify historic properties that would be affected by routes through the monuments. And they said BLM relied on existing information that covered less than 5 percent of the area in the monuments.
But they said the agency is committed to doing ongoing inventories. And the judge said BLM is permitted to use a phased process when dealing with particularly large parcels of land.
And the court said that using a restrictive definition advocated by The Wilderness Society would require closing off more than 94 percent of the routes previously open to the public in Vermilion Cliffs.
Finally, the judges rejected the contention of challengers that BLM is not exercising its full discretion to protect wilderness characteristics of the areas because it refused to designate Wilderness Study Areas.
They noted that BLM used to designate such areas as part of its discretion under federal law to manage lands to protect their wilderness values. But following a settlement with the state of Utah in a different case, BLM no longer creates those study areas.
"But the record shows that BLM views the change in policy as semantic," the appellate court wrote, pointing out that, even under the revised policy, the agency still has authority to protect wilderness characteristics over other uses.