Leavitt takes heat over recent deals
But Bush's EPA nominee praised for nuclear stance, veto
(CNN) -- Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, President Bush's nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, advocates a balance between conservation and economics.
"There is no progress polarizing at the extremes, but there's great ... environmental progress when we collaborate in the productive middle," Leavitt told reporters Monday after Bush's announcement in Denver, Colorado.
"To me, there is an inherent human responsibility to care for the Earth, but there's also an economic imperative that we're dealing with in a global economy to do it less expensively."
But Leavitt's environmental record has drawn much criticism from conservation groups and representatives of the outdoor industry.
He is under fire for two deals he made with the Interior Department earlier this year.
The first, based on an 1866 statute and approved by Interior Secretary Gale Norton, gives Utah counties ownership of thousands of miles of mainly undeveloped roads and long-abandoned trails on federal lands.
A coalition of Utah environmental groups said the deal effectively disqualifies huge swaths of the state for consideration as protected federal wilderness, according to an April report in the Salt Lake Tribune.
Land designated as federal wilderness cannot be developed, and off-road vehicles and natural resources exploration are banned.
The deal likewise drew criticism from 86 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, who sent Norton a letter saying the agreement was "directly contrary to law" and urging her to halt the processing of some 15,000 claims from counties, the Tribune reported.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, ranking Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, asked the General Accounting Office to investigate whether Norton misappropriated public lands.
The second deal settled a lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management by revoking protection of 6 million acres in Utah being managed as wilderness while they were being studied for permanent designation.
The settlement also affects millions more acres across the country.
Both deals reflect the Bush administration's support for giving states and counties more control over the use of federal lands.
As Bush put it Monday in announcing Leavitt's nomination, he "rejects of the old ways of command and control from above."
The Sierra Club cited both deals in its criticism Monday of Leavitt's nomination.
"As EPA administrator, Governor Leavitt would not alleviate concerns that the Bush administration is prone to making shady deals at the expense of a safe and healthy environment," the group said in a statement.
Leavitt took perhaps his biggest hit on the deals from the Outdoor Industry Association, which threatened earlier this year to pull its huge trade show from Salt Lake City, scheduled this month, and find a locale it said was more supportive of wilderness areas and enthusiasts.
Such a move would have meant $24 million in lost revenues to Utah businesses at a time when the state is experiencing an economic slump, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
Leavitt managed to the keep show in town by promising the association that he would support the designation of millions more acres in wilderness areas, the Chronicle reported.
Leavitt also drew criticism for his 2000 proposal to build a 120-mile so-called "Legacy Highway" near the Great Salt Lake that environmental groups said would destroy thousands of acres of wetlands and wildlife habitat.
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals halted the project, citing inadequate review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Leavitt has won praise from environmental groups on at least two occasions in recent years.
The first is his fight against the creation of a temporary nuclear waste storage facility on an Indian reservation.
The other was his veto last year of a bill that would have allowed government agencies to recover costs from plaintiffs who sue unsuccessfully to halt state projects.
Environmental groups, funded largely by individual donations, often sue states for such reasons and would be severely hampered if required to pay costs for every unsuccessful lawsuit.