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Wild Lands, bureaucracy and the BLM

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jackiewheeler | Mar 21, 2011 08:00 AM

I've been following BLM Director Bob Abbey's earnest PR campaign to pacify conservatives on the subject of Secretarial Order 3310, the “Wild Lands Policy," which was issued by interior Secretary Ken Salazar in December. The policy was immediately attacked by Orrin Hatch and other Western politicians as an end-run by the BLM around Congress (which alone has the power to designate wilderness areas) and a capitulation to environmental groups. Apocalyptic fears were raised about fragile local economies destroyed in the wake of newly-forbidden energy production, grazing, off-road tourism, etc. Fortunately, the specter of a power hungry bureau locking away high swaths of rural land was quickly addressed by Abbey and others, such as Heather Hansen in a January post in HCN's “The Range" blog. They correctly note that any designation of “lands with wilderness characteristics" will require public notification and involvement, both at the designation stage and the land-use planning stage. The BLM can't simply act on its own, they note; they must consult the public and act in accordance with existing laws and regulations, including those set out by the National Environmental Protection Act of 1969 (NEPA).

So does the controversy end there? Will public involvement ensure that the BLM administers its lands justly, considering human needs as well those of non-human ecosystems? One would hope, but for you and me the process of contributing input is no simple matter. As I've written here before, NEPA-related documents such as environmental impact statements are notoriously difficult for laypersons to read. This is not simply due to their scientific jargon but to their thickets of abbreviations and acronyms and precise but heavily nominalized and agent-less sentences. Here's one of my favorite examples from the BLM's 2004 wind energy impact statement (from the “Letter to the Reader," which is supposed to be one of the more accessible parts): “The purpose of the proposed plan amendments is to facilitate preparation and consideration of potential wind energy development ROW applications on BLM-administered lands, but not to eliminate the need for site-specific analysis of individual development proposals." If you happen to think that that's not too bad, multiply it by hundreds of pages. Even the “Citizen's Guide to NEPA" concedes this readability problem; it recommends citizens "check with local experts such as biologists or economists at a university to assist with your review of [the document].You can also form study groups" (23). Handy, right?

Regarding the Wild Lands Policy, there is not yet an EIS to struggle through, and those that are produced will be accompanied by public comment periods. Folks who support careful documentation and eventual preservation of wild lands will get to have their say, as well as those who prefer other uses for them. Still, Abbey's assurances about this are much more comforting than the language of Secretarial Order 3310 itself, which states in section 4 that “All BLM offices shall protect these inventoried wilderness characteristics when undertaking land use planning and when making project-level decisions by avoiding impairment of such wilderness characteristics unless the BLM determines that impairment of wilderness characteristics is appropriate and consistent with applicable requirements of law and other resource management considerations." Got that? If not, it's repeated with slightly altered emphasis in section 5. The devil may be in the detail here; did you catch what happens in between the designation stage and the subsequent planning stage? The area with wilderness characteristics must be “protected" by the BLM, and inappropriate “impairment" of the characteristics must be avoided. Does this mean access will be denied or previous uses suspended? How long will these intermediary “undertaking" periods last? As usual, the dense, bureaucratic language obscures as much as it reveals.

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

Jackie Wheeler teaches writing and environmental rhetoric at Arizona State University, where she is also the Associate Director of Writing Programs. Outside academia, she’s an avid rafter, kayaker, and horsewoman who also attempts to garden. When possible, she escapes the Phoenix metro area for an undisclosed location in Southeastern Utah.

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