An anti-wilderness knee jerk


I guess it was predictable. No sooner had Interior Secretary Salazar announced that the BLM would manage certain public domain lands for their backcountry values, than the Farm Bureau Federation and its political allies went on the attack. According to them Salazar’s decision amounts to yet another “land grab” by the Obama Administration on behalf of “radical” environmentalists.

As might be expected, Idaho Governor Butch Otter was among the most vocal critics: 

 Without any state or public input, the Interior Department has circumvented the sovereignty of states and the will of the public by shifting from the normal planning processes of the Federal Lands Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA) to one that places significant and sweeping authority in the hands of unelected federal bureaucrats.

The western Ag press chimed in. Here’s part of how the Capital Press characterized Salazar’s decision:

Managing such vast tracts of federal land puts unprecedented power in the hands of BLM bureaucrats. That alone should send shivers down the spine of every American. Public hearings or not, "transparency" or not, no elected officials will determine whether a tract of land will be excluded from grazing, oil and gas exploration or any other activities.

The Bureau of Land Management manages western lands which white settlers did not homestead

Nowhere in this chorus of criticism is it acknowledged that what Salazar and the Obama Administration have done is simply to put the values associated with wild lands on the same footing as logging, mining and grazing. Through its established planning processes, the BLM decides which areas of the Public Domain will be open to the various extractive industries. Now through the same planning processes, the BLM can choose to protect wild values on some of those lands, thus preserving their recreational and scientific resources as well as the wildlife and ecosystem service values of the land.

Motorized recreation groups, typified by the Blue Ribbon Coalition, joined the Farm Bureau and many western lawmakers in condemning the order.  They claim wilderness activists will use it "to create millions of acres of new Wilderness."

While the Farm Bureau and its political allies rail against Salazar's directive, environmentalists and non-motorized recreation interests - including some hunters - voiced strong support. 

Salazar’s order is actually nothing new; it is simply a return to the sort of comprehensive land management planning contemplated in the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA).  Regulations implementing that law allowed consideration of wilderness values and associated economic benefits and ecosystem services for the first 27 years after FLPMA became law. Then in 2003, the so-called "No More Wilderness" policy was adopted by the Bush Administration as part of a legal settlement with the State of Utah. The deal, between then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton and then-Utah Governor Michael Leavitt, prevented the BLM from recommending new areas for wilderness protection.

Norton’s decision facilitated oil and gas drilling, mining, and other commercial uses on land under consideration as wilderness areas. Salazar’s reversal of the policy, however, does not designate any land as official federal wilderness. Contrary to the claims of opponents, that prerogative remains in the hands of Congress.

Official wilderness designation not withstanding, environmental groups are not hiding the fact that they expect the decision to lead to stronger administrative protections for BLM wild lands which are not congressionally-designated wilderness. Here's how The Wilderness Society expressed those expectations:

We believe the new order gives BLM a long-needed mandate to truly prioritize protection of the significant values that exist on the National Conservation Lands. The lands that make up the National Landscape Conservation System represent a small sliver of the 245 million acres of public lands managed by the BLM. In designating these areas for conservation, Congress (or the President) directed the BLM to elevate these special places and ensure they are protected for future generations.

The reaction to Salazar’s decision demonstrates just how polarized Americans remain with respect to management of western public lands. To the Farm Bureau and its political allies these lands should be managed for their traditional resource values, that is, as storehouses of cheap timber, forage and minerals to be exploited for the benefit of rural westerners.  To the environmental community, however, and to the growing army of non-motorized western public land recreation users, these lands provide the ecosystem services, recreation and opportunities for solitude that enrich the quality of life while providing economic opportunities for rural communities.

Conflict over western lands has been a constant feature of American life since before the founding of the American Republic. That conflict has now become a component of the American Culture Wars. It looks like that will remain the case for the foreseeable future.

Felice Pace has lived in the Klamath River Basin since 1975. For 15 years, he worked for and led the Klamath Forest Alliance as Program Coordinator, Executive Director and Program Director. He remains part of the Alliance’s Core Group, and now consults with environmental and indigenous organizations on fund raising and program development. He currently resides at Klamath Glen, near the mouth of the Klamath River.

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

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