BLM ordered to enact plan to protect wilderness

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has ordered the Bureau of Land Management to launch a new effort to identify and protect lands with wilderness characteristics.

The initiative comes in response to a 2003 settlement between former Interior Secretary Gale Norton and other parties including the state of Utah. The settlement left the BLM without a national policy on how to continue evaluating lands for their wilderness values, and how to manage these lands.

“That is simply unacceptable,” Salazar said Thursday in a news conference in Denver.

Salazar said the Norton agreement “frankly should never have happened and was wrong in the first place.”

Under that agreement by the Bush administration, the BLM stopped recommending new areas for wilderness, leaving them open for other uses such as oil and gas development.

U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the conservative Congressional Western Caucus, criticized Salazar’s action in a news release, saying it overturned the 2003 agreement.

Salazar said the new initiative won’t disavow that agreement, but will make use of existing BLM authority to evaluate its lands for designation as “wild lands” following a public process. Such lands would be managed to protect their wilderness characteristics unless a new public process results in a modified designation.

Wild lands would differ from wilderness areas, which Congress designates and can be modified only by legislation, and from designated wilderness study areas, which the BLM normally must protect as wilderness until Congress decides whether they merit wilderness designation.

Salazar said the wild land designation provides more flexibility for multiple uses of land, such as for alternative-energy development. But it would give lands with wilderness characteristics “a significant place at the table,” whereas in the past such characteristics weren’t valued, he said.

Said Bishop, “Make no mistake about it, this decision will seriously hinder domestic energy development and further contributes to the uncertainty and economic distress that continues to prevent the creation of new jobs in a region that has unduly suffered from this administration’s radical policies.”

Salazar said oil and gas development will continue on BLM lands. But, speaking Thursday at an REI (Recreational Equipment Inc.) building, he said the outdoor recreation industry also is economically important and benefits from wilderness protection.

“Wise stewardship isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s good for business, and it’s good for jobs,” he said.

Peter Metcalf, chief executive officer of Black Diamond Equipment, a maker of outdoor gear, joined in the news conference and said wilderness preservation has taken a back seat to oil and gas development for too long.

He said the economic value of recreation hasn’t been properly valued and considered in public land management.

Also participating Thursday was Whit Fosburgh, chief executive officer and president of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. He cited jobs created by tens of millions of people who take advantage of wildlife habitat to hunt and fish.

“These are jobs that are there forever as long as you take care of that habitat,” he said.

Republican Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert voiced concern in a news release that the Washington-driven policy could undermine the trust needed to successfully conclude ongoing negotiations on wilderness designation in his state.

“This decision may unintentionally damage all of the good will that we have worked so hard to build between the state, local governments, the environmental community and federal officials,” Herbert said.

U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., said in a prepared statement that he welcomed “this announcement allowing the BLM to identify and manage lands for important open, wild and pristine values.”


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