Why Salazar backed down from Wild Lands


By Matthew H. Davis

After strong opposition from several Western states and a pending lawsuit, Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is backing down from his controversial “Wild Lands” policy. 

The announcement comes on the heels of a law suit proposed by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, which was also supported by governors from Wyoming and Alaska, as well as the recent budget deal which prevented the Interior Department from funding the plan.

“I am confirming today that the Bureau of Land Management will not designate land as ‘Wild Lands,’” Salazar said in a memo to Bob Abbey, director of the Bureau of Land Management.

Instead, Salazar said he would work with locally supported efforts to preserve wilderness. 

“We will focus our effort on building consensus around locally supported initiatives and working with members of Congress, states, tribes and local communites to advance their priorities for wilderness designations in their states and districts,” he said in a release this week. “Together, we can advance America’s proud wilderness legacy for future generations.”

But considering Salazar aide Scott Black told the Casper Star-Tribune in Feburary, “I don’t think you should expect material delay or change in the direction of the (Wild Lands policy),” it leaves one wondering: What made Salazar change his mind?

Last month, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert introduced a lawsuit attempting to void the the “Wild Lands” policy. At a press conference introducing the legislation, Herbert described the order as “being created out of thin air”—a reference to the fact that the secretarial order was introduced when Congress was adjourned for the holidays. 

In describing the bill, Herbert pointed to the fact that the Wild Lands policy would override state processes for development of public land.

“It puts a wet blanket on the processes we have in place already here in Utah to determine wilderness,” Herbert said. “Our concern is that this does not help us find out what areas are wilderness, this just gets in the way of a process we’ve already utilized.  This jeopardizes the multiple use of our public lands.”

Almost immediately after Utah filed the suit, Alaska was ready to support the legal proceedings, and last week Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead and the state of Wyoming filed papers to join the litigation.

After Salazar’s announcement that he would be reversing the plan, Herbert was quick to issue a statement declaring victory.

“This is a win for Utah’s county by county process, which has proven successful in identifying wilderness,” he said in a statement. “I have defended Utah’s process in my multiple conversations with Secretary Salazar and Deputy (Interior Secretar David) Hayes, so I am pleased they are listening.”

“This may be a step in the right direction, but Utah will remain vigilant and engaged on this critical front,” Herbert added.

The lawsuit, coupled with the budget bill that defunded the plan, may have finally doomed the “Wild Lands” policy, but since its introduction in late December, the policy has been heavily contested in many Western states rich with public lands.

The vague language of the order and the the unknown effects the proposed order would have on a number of people who use public land for work or play were main reasons the secretarial order was so heavily criticized, said Michelle Subbotin, communications director for Utah Rep. Rob Bishop.

“The Wild Lands policy would not have allowed public lands users “to be included in an open and public process,” she said. “At the end of the day, people want their voices to be heard.”

The secretarial order most simply moved determining wilderness areas from Congress, as designated by the Wilderness Act of 1964, to the BLM, but left many questions about how and which lands would be designated.

“We’re pleased that (the Obama Administration) intends to uphold the intentions of the Wilderness Act of 1964,” Subbotin said.

Environmental groups criticized Salazar’s announcement Wednesday. In a blog post, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance Executive Director Scott Groene called the Obama administration “a steady and enormous disappointment on public lands.”

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Originally posted at NewWest.net

Image courtesy Flickr user lefromage
John Wilson
John Wilson Subscriber
Jun 02, 2011 05:56 PM
I write this to all who hope we can save more of the wonderful wild places. We all know this -- Never stop fighting for protection. We have to win every battle. The despoilers just have to win one.
Jerry King
Jerry King Subscriber
Jun 02, 2011 11:51 PM
Save for whom? For a vocal minority who have decided on behalf of everyone else what the proper way is to relate to our public lands--as sacred places in the nouveau earth-based religion of environmental activists. Pardon me, but while I love our public lands, I don't worship them, and that doesn't make make me a "despoiler." We need oil, we need gas, we need minerals, we need timber, and we need places for people to recreate outdoors who do not want to or cannot hike or use pack animals. With rare exceptions, controls needed to protect endangered species can be achieved with far fewer restrictions than in formally designated Wilderness areas. There is more formally designated Wilderness in this country already than any person could explore in a lifetime. We don't need any more Wilderness.
John Wilson
John Wilson Subscriber
Jun 03, 2011 04:53 AM
Jerry, despoiler is too pejorative, too emotionally loaded. My apologies. The point I wanted to make is that once it is gone it is gone.

Although I do not have a problem with the idea of reverence I do not have any religion. The wild places may be holy to some but they are of real practical value as refuges of biological diversity, as practical grounds for education and research, as the core of a real and significant tourist industry, as a revered refuge and refreshment for the minds of some.

I still remember the voices of James Watt and his leader who spoke of the need to prevent locking up more of the ancient forests when 95% of them in the lower 48 had already been altered with consumptive use. Where do we draw the line?

Putting roads into the wild places for the most gentle and sophisticated resource extraction methods still degrades the landscape and its diversity. Non-native invasive species are inevitably brought in. Unapproved and incompatible uses increase.

I believe those who would save the wilderness and endangered species may be a minority and are certainly vocal (although not enough). However, we are trying to protect an increasingly rare patrimony for all of us for all of the future.

I agree with you that we need those consumables you list. We also need the rapidly diminishing and irreplaceable wild lands.

(Thanks for pointing out the inept use of the word despoiler.)
Ralph B Maughan
Ralph B Maughan
Jun 03, 2011 10:17 PM
This is a reply to Jerry King with a nod to John Wilson.

I think almost no one worships Wilderness areas or natural features among those Americans who work to conserve it. The idea that environmentalists have some sort of Earth religion that worships the Earth is a right-wing talking point with little relationship to reality. Many Wiccans revere the Earth, but that isn't worship, nor does it make them environmentalists.

As for myself, I am an agnostic. Here is a talking point for you. I think most environmentalists have hard to classify religious views. When I visit the Wilderness, I don't see it in religious terms at all. Instead it is a refuge from prophets, priests, popes, and politicians. It helps me to get away from their confusing babble.
Jerry King
Jerry King Subscriber
Jun 04, 2011 07:11 PM
Thanks to both John and Ralph for polite and articulate responses. The quality of discourse here is a refreshing change from most other online discussion forums.

I am a UU deist with many pagan friends, and I know that most of them do not literally worship the Earth, nor are most of them environmental activists. However, I cannot count the times that I have seen the term "sacred places" appear in the promotional literature of wilderness-advocate organizations. I don't know how to interpret that other than in religious terms. The underlying perspective might be more reverential than worshipful, but the objective is clear--more formally designated Wilderness in which the proponents' wilderness values will be imposed on others by the force of law. Religiously motivated or not, Wilderness designation is pursued with the fervor of religious fundamentalists by its proponents.

I am not opposed to the protection of wild places, just the designation of more Wilderness. I have been backpacking into Wilderness areas and other wild places for 40 years and understand their intrinsic value. However, Wilderness designation usually is overkill. Very few landscapes are so fragile that trails must be closed to mountain bikes, and most of our public lands can accommodate offroad vehicles on designated trails without serious threat to species, landscapes, or watersheds. However, Wilderness advocates will have none of it--no mountain bikes, no OHVs, no helicopters, no hang gliders, not even any trail crews with chain saws. These restrictions are not about protecting the land, they are designed to ensure that a particular user group can have the kind of outdoor experience that it desires, and that desire includes excluding other user groups.

Every modern economy, including ours, needs access to extracted resources. Pressures to mine and drill are not simply motivated by corporate greed, as many Wilderness advocacy groups would have us believe. Neither do I accept their frequent assertions and implications that we can simply walk away from fossil fuels and embrace renewables, because it isn't true. Hard choices have to be made regarding the uses of our public lands, and these choices are precluded once land is designated as Wilderness.

Secretary Salazar made the right decision in backing down from his proposed wildlands policy and affirming the need to work with local interests. Unfortunately, his focus and interest is still on additional Wilderness designations rather than on promoting less restrictive policies that would balance competing interests.
Andrew Sipocz
Andrew Sipocz
Jun 05, 2011 08:22 AM
Jerry: the exclusion of the motorized vehicles is something wilderness designation requires for good reason. The whine of engines can be heard over long distances and it's a blessing to be able to get away from it once in a while; though in most wilderness areas you can still hear a chainsaw, dirt bike, highway or other disturbances, just not as often as in a typical national forest. Wilderness designation relieves an area from the threat of coal mines, tailings piles, highways, tall powerlines, airports, resort developments, reservoirs, irrigation canals, ski runs and the myriad of other activities allowed on other public lands. This means that wilderness areas are some of the few places that streams, forests, meadows, marshes, scree slopes and many other natural features can be safe from eventual disruption. The failing of western wilderness is that it allows cattle grazing; a severely disrupting activity as any botanist quickly realizes. Many of our activities have long lasting impacts on the land and wilderness areas exclude some of those. Wilderness is not only a refuge for us, but is also one for future generations.