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Bruce Babbitt challenges administration on wilderness

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Former interior secretary Bruce Babbitt will challenge the Obama administration Wednesday to expand declared wilderness areas in the United States and resist congressional Republicans’ efforts to dismantle federal conservation laws.

Babbitt’s speech at the National Press Club on Wednesday comes at a pivotal moment in the national wilderness debate. Republicans are pushing to roll back federal laws that could determine whether tens of millions of acres are declared off-limits to logging and energy exploration, and it is unclear how much resistance President Obama will offer as he campaigns for a second term.

“I am returning to the public stage today because I believe that this Congress, in its assaults on our environment, has embarked on the most radical course in our history,” Babbitt said in his prepared remarks. “Therefore it is imperative that President Obama take up the mantle of land and water conversation — something that he has not yet done in a significant way.”

At issue is tens of millions of acres of public land in the West that have been involved in a legislative and legal tug of war between conservationists and their opponents since the mid-1990s. Huge swaths of land with “wilderness characteristics” have been left in limbo, awaiting a federal decision on whether they deserve a higher level of protection. There are already nearly 110 million acres of federal wilderness nationwide, most of it in Alaska.

In December, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar unveiled a “wild lands” policy that ordered the Bureau of Land Management to survey tens of millions of acres of public land and determine whether it qualified for additional protection. Last week Salazar reversed course, saying he would abandon the idea since Congress blocked the program in the April budget deal. Instead, he said he would start a consultative process with state and local interests aimed at reaching a consensus on wilderness protection.

Interior spokesman Matt Lee-Ashley noted that Obama signed a 2009 omnibus wilderness bill creating more than 2 million acres of wilderness, and that Salazar had worked to “conserve vast rural landscapes like the Flint Hills in Kansas and the Dakota Grasslands.” The administration also has fought congressional attempts to block restoration efforts in California’s Bay Delta and San Joaquin River.

In addition to eliminating the wild-lands program, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) have introduced legislation that would eliminate wilderness study areas, which accounts for nearly 40 million acres of public land.

“We’re concerned you have now within Congress an anti-wilderness fervor, and within the administration, I think, pretty weak support for wilderness protection,” said William H. Meadows, president of the Wilderness Society, adding that the Obama administration has a better conservation record than its predecessor.

Babbitt, who served as interior secretary for eight years under Bill Clinton, will call on the administration to use the Antiquities Act, which gives the president the power to put public land off limits unilaterally to logging and energy exploration. He will suggest using this law, which was invoked by both Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, to create new national monuments and pressure Congress to establish more wilderness areas.

Clinton designated or expanded 23 national monuments during his administration, and surpassed Theodore Roosevelt’s record by setting aside a total of 9 million acres of wilderness.

But Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the Natural Resources subcommittee on public lands and parks, said in a phone interview that he would reintroduce legislation this year allowing states to exempt themselves from the Antiquities Act. Western lawmakers believe some administrations have “abused” a legal authority reserved “for an emergency situation,” he said.

“We want to make sure it’s not jammed down people’s throats unfairly, and you’ve got to let people have a say in what their future is going to look like,” Bishop said, adding that there’s been a push “to make decisions that circumvent what we have out here, that ignore our wishes or our decisions on our own [land]. That is the problem we have had with this administration.”

Kathleen Sgama, who directs government and public affairs for the Western Energy Alliance, said the fact that so much public land has remained in limbo has created “a lot of uncertainty” for the oil and gas industry.

“Companies have leases held up, permits held up indefinitely because we’ve seen possible wilderness designations,” Sgama said, adding when it comes to the administration’s recent conservation policies, “I hope it means we’re moving away from sweeping proposals imposed by Washington and more to a local, bottoms-up designation of wilderness.”

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