Wild lands by any other name

  • Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah wilderness study area in New Mexico.

    John Fowler cc via flickr

The quarter-billion acres of mostly arid territory overseen by the federal Bureau of Land Management have become an unlikely battleground in the war over wilderness. Last December, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar ordered the BLM to identify any "lands with wilderness characteristics," and, when appropriate, protect them as designated "wild lands." Salazar's order in full is a veritable cornucopia of bureaucratic wonk, but it has rekindled a long struggle. Now, some Western congressional representatives and even governors are pushing back against it.

BLM land has always fit awkwardly into the American notion of wilderness. The BLM manages more land than the Forest Service and the National Park Service combined, but the 1964 Wilderness Act makes no mention of the agency. Congress corrected that oversight in 1976, when it passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, whose Section 603 directed the BLM to identify its wilderness-quality lands and give Congress its recommendations by 1993.

The agency completed that round of inventories, but thanks to widespread antipathy to the prospect of more wilderness, the effort to have Congress formally protect BLM's wilderness-quality lands has, in large part, stalled out. That has left a patchwork of 545 BLM wilderness study areas, or WSAs, mostly in 12 Western states.  Some 12.7 million acres have indefinite and possibly perpetual interim protection until Congress decides whether to officially designate them as wilderness -- or release them for other uses.

The debate over the future of those lands is hardly black-and-white, and their beauty -- or lack of it -- is very much in the eye of the beholder. "The big, attractive wilderness areas were (officially) designated, and then we've had a couple decades of battles over lesser ones," says William Myers, who was the Interior Department's top attorney under George W. Bush. "These are the hard ones that didn't qualify in everybody's mind as obvious wilderness areas in the '70s and '80s."  Whether any particular piece of public land should ever become official wilderness is one question. But underlying it is a bigger one that's been an issue for nearly two decades now: whether BLM has continuing authority to identify and protect new wilderness-worthy lands.

Wilderness opponents -- most notably the oil and gas industry and rural county governments, particularly in Utah -- insist that with the passing of the 1993 deadline to make recommendations to Congress, the door has closed on BLM's ability to identify any additional new wilderness-worthy lands. Based on that interpretation, Bush-era Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt made an out-of-court settlement in 2003 that prohibited the BLM from protecting any more wilderness-quality land anywhere in the country.

But wilderness advocates maintain that sections 201 and 202 of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act give the BLM the responsibility to continue to identify and protect such lands. It was this part of the law that Salazar relied on when he issued his order.

Salazar's order was a direct repudiation of the Norton-Leavitt settlement, and Uintah County, an oil-and-gas hotspot in northeast Utah, immediately sued. The lawsuit alleges that under Salazar's order, "BLM must make wilderness protection the overriding priority" in its management of public lands, a violation of the agency's multiple-use directive. The suit also says that "there is no substantive difference" between the new set of interim wild lands protections and wilderness study areas, "except Interior's use of a different name." In late April, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and the state attorney general filed their own lawsuit challenging the order; the state of Alaska joined that suit.

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