Secretary of Interior Salazar deserves credit for restoring wilderness protections
Thanks to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, the New Year looks brighter for wilderness protection on public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
With the stroke of a pen on December 23, Salazar ended a dark period in the history of wilderness preservation in the West. Reversing what The New York Times called “one of the sorrier blots on George Bush’s sorry environmental record,” Salazar ended the “no more wilderness” policy of the BLM.
After seven years without a comprehensive BLM wilderness protection policy, Salazar told a crowd in Denver, “Today, I am proud to sign a secretarial order that restores protection for the wild lands that the Bureau of Land Management oversees on behalf of the American people,”
“The wild backcountry,” Salazar said, “here in Colorado, and across the West, is also a huge economic engine for local communities. Outfitters, guides, hotels, restaurants and retailers ... all have a stake in the protection of America’s great outdoors.”
Salazar’s order “restores balance to the management of public lands by affirming that the protection of wilderness ... is a high priority for the BLM, and is an integral component of its multiple use mission,” according to an agency website.
Salazar’s action was necessary because, in 2003, George Bush’s Interior secretary, Jane Norton, surprised and dismayed environmentalists and other concerned groups by unilaterally revoking BLM authority under the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act to preserve wilderness quality lands.
As part of an agreement with then-Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt — who would later replace Norton as Interior secretary — Norton withdrew 2.6 million acres of Utah public land from wilderness consideration. But her secretarial order went beyond the Utah concession to extinguish all BLM authority or responsibility for preserving wilderness-quality lands under FLPMA authority. That interpretation disagreed with every previous administration.
Historically, every administration since FLPMA was enacted has used its authority to designate wilderness study areas to protect special places until Congress could consider them for formal wilderness designation under the 1964 Wilderness Act. Often these WSAs formed the core wilderness component of National Conservation Areas such as McInnis Canyons NCA and Dominguez-Escalante NCA.
With wilderness values the only aspect of multiple-use excluded from consideration, such iconic areas as Utah’s red rock canyon country, New Mexico’s Otero Mesa, Oregon’s Steen Mountain, Colorado’s Roan Plateau, Arizona’s Sand Tank Mountains and Wyoming’s Adobe Town wilderness in the Red Desert, along with millions of acres of lesser known jewels, were suddenly threatened by leasing for oil and gas or other development.
In addition to the threat from resource extraction, thousands of miles of off-highway vehicle routes were opened into areas deserving of protection.
Salazar’s order will bring 6 million acres of potential wilderness land in Utah, 650,000 acres in Colorado, more than 5.5 million acres in Arizona, and more than 2 million acres in New Mexico under renewed administrative protection.
In addition, the order says, “the Bureau will now compile an inventory of ‘wild lands’ and, as part of its planning process, has the authority to keep them off limits to development.”
Much of the Colorado BLM wilderness-quality land is in western Colorado. According to Western Colorado Congress spokesperson Lee Gelatt, nearby qualified areas not designated as WSAs include Bangs Canyon, Granite Creek, Hunter Canyon, Maverick Canyon, South Shale Ridge, Sagebrush Pillows, Roubideau Addition to Camelback WSA and Unaweep Canyon.
In addition, the wilderness quality lands of the Roan Plateau and Vermillion Basin, both threatened by oil and gas drilling, may once again be protected. However, it is uncertain how Bush-era leases in sensitive areas will be handled. Environmentalists hope they will be cancelled, but that is not a certain outcome.
Environmentalists, hunters, anglers, hikers, birdwatchers, archeologists — anyone who finds in wilderness experiences that can be duplicated nowhere else — owe a debt of gratitude to Salazar. His decision will protect thousands of acres of wilderness for our children and grandchildren.
“The fact is,” Salazar said, “Americans love the wild places where they hunt, fish, hike and get away from it all, and they expect these lands to be protected wisely on their behalf.”
We will hold him to that commitment.