PUBLIC LANDS: GOP lawmakers demand repeal of wilderness policy
Phil Taylor, E&E News
January 31, 2011
Nearly 60 Republican lawmakers, mostly from the West, on Friday asked Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to rescind a new policy that directs field managers to inventory and protect wilderness-quality lands, arguing that it would significantly affect rural economies.
In a letter from the Western caucuses of both chambers, the members of Congress warned that Interior's decision to announce the policy after last month's recess and without congressional input threatens future wilderness cooperation and sows public distrust.
"As best we can tell, Congress was left in the dark regarding any process the DOI may have undertaken in the preparation of this decision," said the letter authored by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and co-signed by 55 others.
They argued that Interior's new "wild lands" policy flouts the intent of the Wilderness Act -- which gives Congress authority to designate wilderness -- and "appears to be an underhanded attempt by DOI to circumvent Congress and the federal rulemaking process by designating millions of acres of publicly owned lands in Western states as de facto wilderness."
The lawmakers urged Salazar to withdraw the order and asked the agency to consult with Congress if it discovers lands worthy of wilderness protections.
The letter comes amid a hail of criticism from Western governors, counties, oil and gas companies and ranching groups that fear the Bureau of Land Management policy will lock up Western lands from development.
Salazar, backed by environmental groups and dozens of Democrats in the House, last week said the policy is needed so that BLM can fulfill its obligations to manage lands for multiple uses, including oil and gas development, motorized recreation, archaeological resources and wilderness (E&E Daily, Jan. 27).
"We're on very solid grounds," Salazar said following an Interior employee town hall last week. "I feel very comfortable with the fact that we've put wilderness back at the table where it had been taken away from the table for so many years."
A BLM source Friday said the agency's state offices had been requesting clarity on how to manage roadless lands ever since the agency's wilderness guidance was thrown out as part of a 2003 settlement between then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton and former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt (R).
BLM, in fact, has always maintained the authority to identify lands that are unsuitable for certain activities as part of the planning process. The new policy asks field managers to give wilderness equal weight to uses such as oil and gas development and off-highway vehicle use."Wild lands" are only designated after an extensive public process and can be undone through subsequent planning, BLM said.