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Salazar backpedals: Politics stalls wilderness designation, again

June 1, 2011 |  6:20 pm



Understanding how wilderness is designated and how wilderness-quality lands are managed in the U.S. just got murkier. On Wednesday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar issued a memo that promised to abide by a congressional mandate that essentially made it impossible to identify wild public lands that merit protection.

Salazar's memo noted there was broad interest in managing public lands in a "sensible manner" and promised to work collaboratively with members of Congress. He directed Interior officials to draft a report on how best to manage wilderness-quality lands. But the days of holding land in a kind of hands-off limbo while officials decide whether it needs more protection effectively are coming to a halt, again:

"On December 22, 2010, I issued Secretarial Order 3310 to address the BLM's management of wilderness resources on lands under its jurisdiction. Under Secretarial Order 3310, I ordered the BLM to use the public resource management planning process to designate certain lands with wilderness characteristics as "Wild Lands."

On April 14, 20II, the United States Congress passed the Department of Defense and Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act, 2011 (Pub. L. 112-10)(2011 CR), which includes a provision (Section 1769) that prohibits the use of appropriated funds to implement, administer, or enforce Secretarial Order 3310 in Fiscal Year 2011.

I am confirming today that, pursuant to the 2011 CR, the BLM will not designate any lands as 'Wild Lands.' "

As far as spelling out the administration's view of wilderness, the memo gave little insight into what has become the highly political process of managing the nation's least-disturbed lands.

The latest wilderness debate began with a backroom deal forged during the Bush administration. Utah officials and the federal Bureau of Land Management agreed the agency would no longer consider the wilderness characteristics of land it managed.

That reversed decades of land planning policy that required federal managers to inventory land suitable for wilderness designation and manage it as if it was "de facto" wilderness. The new policy 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motorized recreation enthusiasts to pursue activities that degraded some sensitive public lands to the point where they no longer maintained wilderness characteristics.

The deal held until Iast December, when Salazar issued an order instructing BLM managers to return to the practice of designating suitable areas as "wild lands," in part citing the agency's regulatory obligation to do so.

There was instantaneous shrieking from many Western elected officials, who said the policy would close off access to public lands and ruin rural economies. Utah led the way by filing suit against the Department of the Interior.

Then in April Congress weighed in, attaching a rider to the defense appropriations bill that prohibited Interior from using public money to carry out wilderness inventories.

Salazar's announcement confirms that the agency will comply with congressional wishes but leaves unspoken how wilderness-quality public land would be protected or managed.

A day before, the White House announced that June had been designated "Great Outdoors" month.


Wilderness Protections Rolled Back

Judge rules against Utah bid to control roads in National Parks

Pristine Areas of the West Are Again Preserved

--Julie Cart

Photo: A sunset view of the Caliente Mountain Range, which helps define the southwestern end of the 204,000-acre Carrizo Plain National Monument, managed by the BLM. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times