Salazar’s order restores essential protections to wild lands

With its usual single-minded focus on energy, the Club 20 Public Lands and Natural Resources Committee launched a flailing attack on the Bureau of Land Management’s “Wild Lands” policy recently announced by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

“Denunciation of Salazar’s proposal was the overwhelming sentiment,” among the 45 people who attended the Club 20 meeting last week, The Daily Sentinel reported.

“Wild lands” will join wilderness and wilderness study areas as protected categories, Salazar said. But “land-use decisions about wildlands will be flexible,” he added, “and take into consideration economic interests and other factors impacting the communities where they reside.”

A public process would be involved in making decisions for wild lands management.

Salazar’s order also directs the BLM “to maintain a current inventory of public lands with wilderness characteristics, which will contribute to the agency’s ability to make balanced, informed land management decisions, consistent with its multiple-use mission.”

David Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Oil and Gas Association, complained that the designation of “wild lands” could threaten the region’s energy economy, but Salazar offered reassurances.

“It does not lock up the Western lands across America from other uses,” he said. Besides, as Salazar pointed out, the oil and gas industry has already leased 40 million acres of BLM land for oil and gas drilling.

“There will be oil and gas that will continue to be developed” on BLM leases Salazar promised.

The other direction of the Club 20 attack is to undermine confidence in the secretarial order by suggesting it is an illegitimate abuse of power. Former Club 20 President Kathy Hall characterized it as an “underhanded” attempt to create wilderness without congressional approval.

The weakness of that argument is that Salazar’s order brings the BLM into compliance with congressional mandates. It does not create a new wilderness protection category, but restores protections relinquished during the Bush administration.

The Federal Land Policy and Management Act, passed by Congress in 1976, obligated the BLM to keep a current inventory of lands it manages, including landscapes with wilderness qualities. These special lands were managed to protect their ecosystems until Congress could decide to award or reject official wilderness designation.

In 2003, President George W. Bush’s Interior Secretary, Gale Norton, abdicated that responsibility in a one-sided, out-of-court compromise with the state of Utah and other plaintiffs representing energy interests.

Since that time, the BLM has operated without a comprehensive wilderness policy. “That is simply unacceptable,” Salazar said when he announced the change in policy last December.

But “wise stewardship isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s good for business and it’s good for jobs,” Salazar said. “What we do with respect to our outdoors is about job creation and also just about protecting the beauty of our planet for generations to come.”

By contrast to the doom-and-gloom predictions of economic collapse by the energy industry, the Outdoor Industry Association and the Conservation Alliance, on behalf of the companies it represents, sent a letter to the House Natural Resources Committee endorsing Salazar’s order.

“The outdoor industry depends on a full spectrum of public lands and waters to provide places for our customers to use the products we make and sell,” the letter reads. “Accounting for $750 billion annually in equipment sales, supporting 6.5 million jobs and generating $88 billion in state and local tax revenue, the recreation industry calls preserving some BLM lands for recreation and habitat “an investment in our future and the quality of life in our communities.”

Of particular importance to Colorado, “outdoor recreation and related tourism contribute substantially to local and state economies. Colorado’s Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan, which is developed every five years, conservatively estimated in 2008 that outdoor recreation generates more than $10 billion in annual economic activity statewide.

Much of that income generation occurs on the Western Slope. With the gas industry in decline, these recreation dollars are of increasing importance to local economies.

It is time for Club 20 and the energy companies to recognize that the big barbecue is over. Energy development is still important, but it can no longer be the dominate voice in public lands decisions.

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


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