Top-Down Land Management


Those who saw the March 1 hearing on Interior Secretary Salazar’s "Wild Lands" order may not have learned much about wilderness preservation's impact on Western jobs -- as the hearing’s title suggested -- but they did, at least, witness a brilliant display of congressional snark. "The reality is," said Congressman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) addressing his state’s Governor Gary Herbert, "Utah has 10 percent private property, so congratulations for being governor over 10 percent of Utah. On the rest, you’re the regional administrator for Mr. Abbey."

Bishop, like Herbert, was lamenting the federal government's vast landholdings and jurisdiction over the state’s natural resources; the Bureau of Land Management, under Bob Abbey's directorship, manages roughly two-thirds of Utah.  One-fifth of Utah's BLM land is currently permitted for energy development and extraction, while less than 2 percent is protected wilderness.  But Salazar’s recent "Wild Lands" order makes it a BLM priority to protect "lands with wilderness characteristics” when making decisions that could change the lands’ use.

When the Interior Secretary made the announcement last December, Governors C.L. "Butch" Otter of Idaho and Herbert of Utah acted slighted -- Salazar hadn't consulted them -- and the states' Republican Congressmen immediately called for an oversight hearing.  Only Congress has the power to designate land as "wilderness," they said, and Salazar's order was an irresponsible circumvention of that policy.

Otter, the first to testify at the hearing, said he worried the state’s economy would suffer when gas and oil companies put projects on hold due to regulatory uncertainty.  Herbert added, "I don’t see (more wild lands) having any advantage to improving the economy of Utah.  I think it does, in fact, have a depressing effect."

But both governors seemed more concerned by the process through which the Obama administration has tried to influence wilderness designation.  Otter accused Salazar of "top-down one-size-fits-all management," and said "Wild Lands" jeopardized work on the state and local level toward collaborative land management decisions.  He likened the Secretarial Order to Clinton's midnight Roadless Rule, which set aside 50 million acres of wilderness area for protection and was quickly overturned when Bush took office.

What Otter failed to mention is how "Wild Lands" came to be.  The order does little more than restore the BLM's authority to "preserve and protect certain public lands in their natural condition" under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 -- an authority stripped by the Bush administration in 2003.

"When the Bush administration overturned (that authority)," Congressman Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico) asked Otter, "they did that with no formal consultation to local elected officials or to the public.  Did you register the same objections?"

"No I did not," said Otter, "because I agreed with it."

"The process is important no matter what side you're on," chided Heinrich.

In fact, it seemed most in the hearing room agreed on one thing: Land management decisions made without public and state input are rather inconsiderate, if not ineffective.  But if "Wild Lands" was simply a reinstatement of the BLM's original authority under law -- not order -- then is it really as inconsiderate as some may think?

Near the end of the hearing, Otter made his real concerns clear: The BLM, by making wilderness protection a priority, works against Idaho's economic interests and threatens state sovereignty over oil, gas, and other resources.

"Yes, that's right," said Congressman Bishop with a dry grin. “Because obviously wisdom is in Washington, and you people out in the hinterlands can’t handle it.  That's why you're there, and I'm here."

Sierra Crane-Murdoch is a High Country News intern.

Photo courtesy of Flickr User Passerine.