Wilderness ping-pong

Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar last week re-ignited a long-simmering dispute in the West about potential wilderness areas administered by the Bureau of Land Management.

Salazar’s edict on Thursday ordered the BLM to identify and protect lands with wilderness characteristics under a new class-ification called “wild lands.”

Although we have questions about Salazar’s action, the new order doesn’t appear to be the public-lands-policy blitzkrieg that some on the Republican side of the aisle have proclaimed it.

For one thing, the “wild lands” designation established by Salazar is more flexible than the “wilderness study area” classification under which the BLM currently manages many areas with wilderness potential. Wilderness study areas are basically managed as wilderness areas, even though they must await action by Congress to officially be designated as wilderness.

Salazar’s wild lands classification allows more multiple-use opportunities, although lands classified with wild lands would presumably be off-limits to oil and gas exploration and leasing, which has infuriated supporters of that industry.

Salazar’s order also requires input from the public, including local communities, before classifying areas as “wild lands.”

But the secretary’s action again raises a question about how much legal authority the executive branch has in setting public-lands policy, and how much belongs to Congress.

There’s also reason to wonder about the timing of this. The Bush-era ruling that halted further BLM consideration of potential wilderness lands has been in place since 2003. Although environmental groups have long wanted that action reversed, there is no immediate threat to most of those lands. In fact, oil and natural gas development have slowed considerably since 2003.

At a time when the economy and job creation are supposedly top priorities for President Barack Obama, it’s hard to see how picking a new fight with the oil and gas industry furthers that effort.

The Salazar order came the same week as several other actions by the Obama administration that assert its executive powers in areas disputed by many in Congress. There were new Internet rules adopted by the Federal Communications Commission; plans by the Environmental Protection Agency to move forward with rules to combat CO2 emisssions, despite the failure of similar legislation in Congress; and there were new regulations issued last week regarding price increases by health insurers.

Obama and his Cabinet officials appear eager to push boundaries of executive authority before a Republican majority takes over in the House next month.

Salazar’s edict on wilderness all but guarantees a fight with Congress. Republican Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, chairman of the House’s Western Caucus, has already condemned the decision, as has Colorado’s 3rd District Congressman-elect, Scott Tipton.

The question of BLM examination and administration of potential wilderness areas has long been a political ping-pong ball, batted one way by Republican administrations and swatted in the opposite direction by Democratic ones. If Congress really wants to make it clear that it, and not the executive, sets policy on public lands, it should adopt legislation directing the executive branch exactly how to deal with the issue.

Don’t hold your breath.


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