Wilderness Policy Sparks Western Ire
An Initiative to Expand Protection of Unspoiled Lands Has Drawn Opposition From Energy Companies and Ranchers
By Stephanie Simon, Wall Street Journal
The Organ Mountains in Las Cruces, N.M., left, is one of the sites the Bureau of Land Management may seek to preserve under a new federal government initiative aiming to protect more public lands
An Obama administration directive designed to preserve more public lands as wilderness is stirring anger in the West, where ranchers, sportsmen and energy companies say they could lose access to acreage they count on for their recreation and livelihood.
The regulatory change, initiated this month, directs the Bureau of Land Management to survey its vast holdings stretching between Alaska, Arizona, California and Colorado, in search of unspoiled back country. The agency can then designate these tracts—potentially millions of acres—as "wild lands."
Protections will vary from site to site, but in general such lands will be shielded from activities that disrupt habitat or destroy the solitude of the wild, according to the Interior Department. That might mean banning oil drilling, uranium mining or cattle grazing in some areas. It also could mean restrictions on recreational activities, such as snowmobiling or biking.
Stephanie Simon explains why the Obama Administration's surprise move last week to give the Bureau of Land Management the power to designate millions of acres as "wild lands" has sparked an uproar among Republicans and would-be developers.
"Americans love the wild places where they hunt, fish, hike and get away from it all, and they expect these lands to be protected wisely on their behalf," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in announcing the policy shift late last week.
But the move, which did not require legislative approval, has drawn a hostile response from many in the West. "This harms economic growth," said Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican who takes over next month as chair of the House subcommittee on public lands. "The West is being abused."
House Republicans, who will hold the majority in the new Congress that arrives next week, say they plan hearings on the new policy and perhaps seek to cut funding to the BLM for identifying and managing wild lands.
The administration's initiative reasserts a power the BLM used extensively in the 1970s and 1980s to designate stretches of prairie, desert, mountain range or river basin as wild and to limit human intrusion on those landscapes. The agency largely relinquished this practice in 2003 to settle a lawsuit by the governor of Utah, who was seeking to block the BLM from setting aside 2.6 million acres in his state as wilderness.
The administration's move overrides the 2003 agreement and asserts that preserving the wild qualities of remote lands is a "high priority."
Mr. Salazar and BLM officials have tried to counter criticism with a pledge to hold public hearings before designating areas as wild lands. They also say they won't necessarily bar all intrusive activities; they may, for instance, allow vehicular travel on existing roads. The plans developed to protect each region will be revisited every 10 to 20 years, said Jeff Jarvis, a BLM division chief.
None of that reassures Jim Hagenbarth, a Montana rancher who leases BLM land to graze cattle. He fears he might lose some of his leases to wild lands designations, or be barred from such practices as burning off sagebrush to clear room for the grasses that cattle prefer. He also frets that more protected wilderness will mean more habitat for wolves, grizzlies and other predators who occasionally raid his herds.
"We're extremely worried," Mr. Hagenbarth says.
The initiative also has drawn opposition from the energy industry. Kathleen Sgamma, a director of the Western Energy Alliance, which represents 400 oil and natural-gas companies, said the new policy could block promising lands from drilling. The Obama administration has opened several million acres to leases by energy companies but has revoked or restricted other plans to drill on public lands. Ms. Sgamma said that had forced the industry to cancel nearly $4 billion in investment this year alone.
Such fears are heightened by a draft BLM memo that became public earlier this year outlining strategies for protecting up to 140 million acres of BLM land—an area the size of Colorado and Wyoming combined. Not all this land was deemed sufficiently untouched to qualify as wild, but the memo listed sites in New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Colorado, California and Utah as likely candidates.
The BLM says the memo was just an exercise in brainstorming, but critics see the outlines of a bid to put more land off-limits.
"The message of the [midterm] election is we want less regulation, less government intrusion. We want to keep these lands open," said Rep. Dean Heller, a Nevada Republican.
The BLM manages more than 250 million acres across the western U.S. and Alaska. The agency now protects about 22 million acres as wilderness. The National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service also administer wilderness areas. In total, wilderness protections extend across about 5% of the U.S. About half the total wilderness acreage is in Alaska.
Environmentalists say protecting wild lands is crucial—for flora and fauna, for humans craving solitude and even for economic growth, as tourists may be drawn to the hiking, hunting and rock-climbing often allowed in wilderness areas."The economy is often tied to the health of the landscape," said Josh Pollock, a director at the Center for Native Ecosystems in Denver."Some of these places," he added, "are absolutely stunning."
By Patrick O'Connor, Wall Street Journal Washington Wire
Rep. Rob Bishop (R., Utah), who was just announced as the incoming chairman of a subcommittee that oversees federal lands, issued a call-to-arms on behalf of farmers, ranchers and miners that have tussled with the federal government in recent years over the use of public land.
In a press release announcing his chairmanship of the Natural Resources Committee's panel on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, Mr. Bishop said the federal government has placed "inequitable burdens" on "communities that rely on access to our nation's natural resources and lands."
Out West, many farmers, ranchers and miners rely on the use of federal lands, and newly empowered Republicans like Mr. Bishop are eager to reassert themselves on behalf of these users in this often-overlooked arena. The Utah Republican complained that the Obama administration has made "unilateral decisions that circumvent congressional process and local input."
"Over the past two years, our nation's public land users, industries and many local rural economies essential to the future vitality of our country have been unduly targeted by an administration working in concert with radical special interests," Mr. Bishop said.
He said that people can use federal land for commercial purposes without harming the environment.
"Multiple use and the responsible stewardship of our federally managed lands are not mutually exclusive," he said. "The interests of all parties and stakeholders can and should be recognized in the development of our natural resource policies."
Mr. Bishop went on to say, "Unfortunately, this has not occurred in recent years and is one change that I will champion under the new majority."