House Democrats continue to battle for wilderness

In what The New York Times calls “another House-engineered setback for the environment,” Congressional Republicans have derailed the Obama administration’s wild lands policy that aimed to restore the legal power of the BLM to designate wilderness quality lands worthy of protection.

Unfortunately, this interference with long-established public lands policy reflects a radical right-wing, anti-environmental agenda that even some Republicans question.

Last February, Republicans for Environmental Protection wrote, “House Republicans fell prey to anti-environmental extremism” when they “passed a 2011 spending plan loaded with attacks on public health standards and conservation that have little to do with reducing the nation’s debt.”

Much the same could be said of the recently passed continuing resolution to fund the government for the remainder of 2011.

With that legislation, Congressional Republicans forced Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to suspend the administration’s wild lands policy by prohibiting “the use of appropriated funds to implement, administer, or enforce” the wild lands policy.

Salazar’s Secretarial Order 3320, announced shortly before last Christmas, was greeted by conservationists as a return to pre-Bush land management practices. The 1976 Federal Land Policy Management Act requires the BLM to protect areas with wilderness characteristics until Congress reviews them for permanent protection under the 1964 Wilderness Act.

This policy remained in effect until 2003 when George Bush’s Interior Secretary, Gail Norton, suspended FLPMA wilderness rules in the Western states.

This “no more wilderness” policy, according to the Los Angeles Times, “allowed Western politicians, oil and gas companies and motorized recreation enthusiasts to pursue activities that degraded some sensitive public lands to the point where they no longer maintained wilderness characteristics.”

Salazar’s announcement of the wild lands policy reversed the Norton policy.

But, as the Deseret News of Utah reports, the policy change “brought howls of protests from Western conservative lawmakers.” They accused Democrats of “doing an end-run around congressional authority (to designate wilderness) and stripping local and state government from having any input, though the policy does neither.

In response to the funding cut, 44 Democratic House members sent a letter to the president asking him to restore full funding for the protection of these special places in the 2012 budget.

Colorado Rep. Diana DeGette joined colleagues Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., Gerry Connolly, D-Va., and Martin Heinrich, D-N.M. to compose the letter. Colorado Reps. Ed Perlmutter and Jared Polis signed on, along with 38 of their Democratic colleagues.

The letter warned the president, “Without the wild lands policy, many of our nation’s pristine wild and public lands remain at risk.”

Democrats also charge that the Bush administration’s Norton policy “was an abdication of the Department’s legal obligations under ... FLPMA ... to inventory and manage public lands with wilderness characteristics. In addition, it was an unprecedented departure from a long history of agency management of wild lands which preserved Congress’ ability to designate lands as wilderness.”

If Democrats are unsuccessful at restoring BLM authority over wilderness quality lands, it could portend even more draconian Republican efforts to unravel public lands protections.

Recently Utah Rep. Rob Bishop and Louisiana Sen. David Vitter introduced legislation that would radically alter the BLM mandate for multiple uses of public lands by elevating drilling above all other public land priorities.

Included in the bill is a provision to reinstate the 77 oil and gas leases close to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks that were blocked by a federal court before being withdrawn by Secretary Salazar to protect the parks.

Rep. Bishop also joined Reps. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Steve Pearce, R-N.M. to work with the off-road vehicle industry to draft the “Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act.”

This bill would unleash OHVs on millions of acres of both BLM and Forest Service lands that have provided quiet recreation opportunities for decades.

Other radical efforts by House Republicans include unsuccessful attempts to cut funding for the National Landscape Conservation System that could have closed McInnis Canyons and Dominguez/Escalante NCAs.

As the House Democrats’ letter to Obama points out, the wild lands policy is very popular with ordinary Americans.

This is especially true of Colorado, where polls indicate a substantial majority of citizens support wilderness protections.

If Colorado voters unite to protect the special places they value, these Republican attacks on wilderness could, like ending Medicare, work against them in the 2012 election.

Bill Grant lives in Grand Junction. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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