September 16, 2008
Kofa Wilderness Ruling Ignores Public's Right-to-Know
Artificial water tanks installed in wilderness with motorized equipment and without adequate public involvement.
Contact: Kevin Gaither-Banchoff, Executive Director, 520-326-4300
PHOENIX— In a decision made on September 5th in the United States District Court, Judge Mary Murguia ignored the public’s right to know about a significant project to install artificial water structures in a federally designated wilderness area. The case was brought by conservation groups against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Kofa National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) because the agency failed to notify and involve the public in the decision for a new water installation project and their use of motorized equipment to construct this permanent structure within a federally designated wilderness area.
Montana-based Wilderness Watch filed the lawsuit, which included the Arizona Wilderness Coalition, Western Watersheds Project, Sierra Club, and the Grand Canyon Wildlands Council as plaintiffs. Plaintiffs charged the agency with violations of the Wilderness Act—which normally prohibits both permanent, man-made structures and the use of motorized or mechanized equipment in wilderness areas—and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires agencies to notify the public of any major actions or projects on federal public land that could significantly affect the quality of the environment.
“Wilderness is a place for everyone to enjoy, including hunters,” says Kevin Gaither-Banchoff, executive director for the statewide-focused Arizona Wilderness Coalition. “But this decision ignores the letter and spirit of these two historic environmental laws. NEPA is meant to hold agencies accountable to the public for their actions, but this illogical ruling essentially says it’s o.k. to put our public resources into the hands of private interest groups.”
The two projects were revealed to--and planned with the close cooperation of--several hunting organizations, though they were actively kept secret from the rest of the American public who have a stake in how their public lands are managed. Officials at Kofa NWR invoked a “categorical exclusion” under NEPA for the two water tank structures, claiming that the projects were not likely to cause any significant impacts to the wilderness, and thus, it was unnecessary to notify the larger public through a full environmental impact statement.
“There is a time and a place where motorized equipment could be authorized for necessary projects in wilderness” says Don Hoffman, a retired U.S. Forest Service wilderness manager who currently sits on the Board of the Arizona Wilderness Coalition. “However, using all-terrain vehicles to avoid blisters from hiking, as the judge ruled, is far beyond the intent of the Wilderness Act. Professional wilderness crews take great pride in developing their primitive skills and in showing off their can-do attitude. They should be aghast with this ruling.”
The Arizona Wilderness Coalition has worked to protect and restore the wilderness-quality lands and waters around the state for more than 30 years and will be evaluating next steps concerning single-species wildlife advocates and wilderness protection to minimize future conflicts.