Feds abandon wilderness plan

A proposal to identify lands that might qualify for wilderness designations is on hold, a casualty of the U.S. House budget cuts.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that one of the agencies under his control, the Bureau of Land Management, will not designate any wild lands and said the department will work with Congress, states, tribes and communities to identify appropriate candidates for wilderness designation.

Salazar cited a budget agreement between Congress and President Obama that prohibited spending the remainder of this year on Salazar’s wild lands initiative.

The announcement sparked dismay among conservation organizations, a declaration of victory by the governor of Utah, no comment from the Colorado Department of Natural Resources and guarded relief from industry and business organizations.

Wilderness Society President William H. Meadows said the “apparent capitulation to opponents of wilderness protection is deeply disturbing.” He urged Salazar to recognize the Interior Department’s responsibility to protect “our most sensitive landscapes for future generations.”

Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert said the decision represented a win for his state’s approach to letting county officials identify potential wilderness areas.

U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., said he welcomed the decision and hopes it will mark consensus-based approach to wilderness designations.

“We will continue to be vigilant and make sure that future designations of public lands are made by consensus, not by executive fiat,” Tipton said.

U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., said his support for the wild lands policy is unwavering because he believes it will guide the BLM in dealing with potential wilderness “until Congress decided what to do with them. I think this is a reasonable approach and am disappointed that the policy is not being implemented.”

If the announcement represents a withdrawal of Salazar’s memo calling for the BLM to identify wild lands and “we really are moving away from designating wild lands, then it’s a good thing,” Club 20 Executive Director Bonnie Petersen said.

Caution, however, is in order, Petersen said, because the order seems to say only “not now,” and doesn’t represent a long-term change in direction.

Administration officials tried as recently as April to persuade Club 20, a Western Slope advocacy organization, that the policy was intended to be used as part of the planning process and would respect the right of Congress to designate wilderness.

Club 20, however, has remained skeptical about how the policy would be managed.

As long as there is public input and congressional action is required, “that’s the way wilderness should be designated,” Petersen said.

Salazar’s wild-lands policy was popular among hunters, anglers, hikers and others “because it keeps our access to public lands in balance with other uses,” Colorado Wildlife Federation President Suzanne O’Neill said in a statement. “Even now, some important wildlife habitat is at a tipping point due to a combination of factors, including development.”

The West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association said it “wholeheartedly” agreed with Salazar that conservation decisions should be made locally. “The wild-lands proposal threatened jobs and energy projects just a stone’s throw from Grand Junction, so the secretary’s thoughtfulness in reversing this top-down policy is appreciated,” association Executive Director David Ludlam said.


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