By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House
It wasn’t long after Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was in Denver last month, announcing a new “Wild Lands” policy, that debate over the order flared: will it illegally lock up too much land as “hands off” wilderness, or does it rightfully restore protection for wild tracts of land?
Secretarial Order 3310, a.k.a. “Wild Lands,” makes it a “high priority” for the Bureau of Land Management, which manages 245 million acres in western states, to identify and protect “lands with wilderness characteristics” and to consider that distinction when deciding what can be done with those areas. This includes some hotly-contested areas like the Vermillion Basin in northwest Colorado and Utah’s red rock country, as well millions of acres in Arizona, New Mexico and Idaho.
Opponents insist the Wild Lands policy circumvents Congress. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings issued a statement calling the move a “backdoor approach,” saying, “the Administration clearly knows that the law only allows Congress to designate Wilderness areas, though somehow they hope giving it a different label of ‘Wild Lands’ will pass legal muster.”
Newly-minted Utah Senator Mike Lee jumped on the bandwagon. As his first official act in office this month, Lee demanded documents from Salazar relating to the policy. On his Facebook page, Lee posted, “I will not sit idly by while the federal government puts a choke hold on our most valuable resources.” Utah Rep. Rob Bishop (R), the chair of the House National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee agreed, calling the policy, “a blatant attempt to usurp Congress' role over public land management.”
Lee and Bishop are sweating the fact that roughly 7 million acres in Utah have wilderness character, and the Wild Lands policy could potentially prohibit resource extraction on some portion of those.
But, the truth is, the Wild Lands policy isn’t entirely new. It basically restores authority to the BLM that was removed in 2003 during the Bush administration. At that time, a settlement (called the “No More Wilderness” plan)—which involved more backroom than courtroom negotiations—between Interior and the state of Utah concluded that the BLM could not protect land simply for its wilderness value. This flew in the face of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, which specifically requires BLM to “preserve and protect certain public lands in their natural condition.”
BLM’s director, Bob Abbey, expressed some relief when he spoke in Denver, alongside Salazar. “The new Wild Lands policy affirms the BLM's authorities under the law—and our responsibility to the American people—to protect the wilderness characteristics of the lands we oversee as part of our multiple use mission… Today's secretarial order will help the BLM take a giant step toward meeting its goal of balanced stewardship,” he said. Whether or not it will also put an end to the agency being jokingly referred to as the “Bureau of Livestock and Mining” remains to be seen.
To understand what the “Wild Lands” designation might mean, it helps to look at two other BLM designations for public land. “Wilderness Areas” are designated by Congress and cannot be modified, except by legislation, and “Wilderness Study Areas” are managed to protect wilderness characteristics until Congress decides whether or not to permanently protect them as Wilderness Areas.
What’s new is that Wild Lands, unlike the two other wilderness distinctions, can be modified through a public administrative process. It does not mean, for better or worse, that a “wilderness” label can be slapped on an area by a BLM field office and all activity there must cease in perpetuity. (Some conservationists feel this doesn’t provide enough protection to vulnerable areas.) The use of Wild Lands will be open to public input, and those comments must be taken into account as the BLM decides how to manage an area.
Whether or not Wild Lands is a legitimate status may ultimately depend on what we perceive as the overarching value of certain public lands. The Wild Lands order eloquently declares that, “Many of America’s most treasured landscapes include public lands with wilderness characteristics that provide visitors with rare opportunities for solitude and personal reflection.”
Does that suggest that an emotional take-away is more valid than an economic one? Or, as the order suggests, is there an approach that combines both finances and feeling? “In an increasingly developed world, public lands with wilderness characteristics provide social, cultural, economic, scientific and ecological benefits for present and future generations,” it says.
Wild Lands is not, as the policy’s outspoken critics would lead us to believe, a job-killing, revenue-shrinking idea. There’s a reason Peter Metcalf, CEO of Black Diamond Equipment (which is based in Utah), was standing next to Salazar in Denver: the outdoor recreation industry contributes $730 billion annually to the U.S. economy, supports 6.5 million jobs and generates $88 billion in state and federal tax revenue. Criticism that discounts this economic reality reveals a tired allegiance to extractive industries or, at the very least, it shows a profound lack of imagination.
Image of BLM land in Utah courtesy Heather Hansen.
Heather Hansen is an environmental journalist working with the Red Lodge Clearinghouse /Natural Resources Law Center at CU Boulder, to help raise awareness of natural resource issues.
Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.