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Court Nixes Arizona Land Management Suits

PHOENIX (CN) - A federal judge found the U.S. government is properly managing more than 1 million acres of public land north of the Grand Canyon, where environmentalists claim off-road vehicles and grazing livestock are destroying natural and cultural treasurers and poisoning endangered California condors with carrion full of lead.

U.S. District Judge Paul Rosenblatt sided with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in two related lawsuits last week, finding that the agency's 2008 management plans for the Grand Canyon-Parashant and Vermillion Cliffs National Monuments conform to federal law.

The monuments encompass some 1.3 million acres of lonely, arid sweeps of high-desert plains and towering red-rock cliffs north of the Grand Canyon's north rim, on the Arizona-Utah border.

The Wilderness Society, the Center for Biological Resources and other groups claimed in two separate lawsuits that the agency's long-term management strategy for the lands goes against the presidential proclamations that initially protected them.

President Bill Clinton's proclamations that established the monuments in 2000 say that "all motorized and mechanized vehicle use off road will be prohibited, except for emergency or authorized administrative purposes."

"Full of natural splendor and a sense of solitude, this area remains remote and unspoiled, qualities that are essential to the protection of the scientific and historic resources it contains," the proclamations say.

Nonetheless, the BLM "adopted resource management plans that treat the monuments as if they are indistinguishable from general multiple-use BLM lands," allowing "a spider web of thousands of miles of trails and routes for motorized vehicles that BLM admits will damage the objects listed in the proclamations," according to the environmental groups.

The groups also object to the agency's oversight of livestock grazing on the lands, demanding that the government prohibit hunters from using lead bullets on the monuments. They claim that California condors - rare vultures that were brought back from the edge of extinction when they were reintroduced into the wild in the Grand Canyon region - scavenge bullet-ridden carrion and then suffer high levels of lead poisoning. The condor issue prompted the National Rifle Association to intervene in the Center for Biological Diversity's action.

"The proclamation clearly calls for BLM to protect the biological resources and habitat there," Earthjustice associate attorney Michael Hiatt told Courthouse News. "We are disappointed with this. We feel that the proclamations clearly direct them to prohibit motor vehicle use off of roads, and they failed to do that."

And the conservation priorities written into the proclamations - the monuments' founding documents - should supersede all others, Hiatt said.

Denver-based Earthjustice is handling the Parashant complaint, while the Center for Biological Diversity is arguing the Vermillion Cliffs action, which includes the condor issue.

In granting summary judgment to the BLM in both lawsuits, Rosenblatt found that the agency's resource-management plans will adequately protect the lands. He pointed out that the plans close nearly 90,000 acres in Vermillion Cliffs and nearly 300,000 acres in Grand Canyon-Parashant to "motorized and mechanized vehicle use," including some 360 miles of routes that were previously open to such use. Rosenblatt also found that the BLM's management plans for livestock grazing pass muster, as they close some 34,000 acres in Parashant to grazing and "establish new standards and management actions to protect rangeland health."

As for the lead-poisoned condors, Rosenblatt found that the BLM has no authority to regulate hunting on federal lands. States are usually responsible for watching hunters, and the proclamations expressly refuse to override that power.

Hiatt said that Earthjustice plans to take its case to the 9th Circuit. The Center for Biological Diversity did not respond to a request for comment.

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