Facing resistance from congressional Republicans, the Obama administration reversed course Wednesday and jettisoned a policy aimed at evaluating whether millions of acres in the West would qualify for wilderness protection.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar issued a secretarial order in late December saying the Bureau of Land Management would reassess if land the agency holds constituted “wild lands” that deserved additional federal protection. The budget deal President Obama and congressional leaders struck in April barred Interior from spending any money for the rest of the current year to implement the policy.
In a statement, Salazar said he would not pursue the policy but would direct Interior Deputy Secretary David J. Hayes to work with the bureau and “interested parties to develop recommendations regarding the management of public lands with wilderness characteristics.”
The question of how best to evaluate millions of acres of Western land has produced a series of policy flips in recent years. A former Interior secretary, Gale A. Norton, reached a court settlement with Utah in 2003 that curtailed which lands would be subject to a wilderness review. The order Salazar issued Dec. 23 reversed Norton’s directive.
Energy companies welcomed the administration’s about-face, saying it would lead to more practical decisions on where to develop.
“Many proposals for wilderness designation have failed in Congress because far-away politicians and special-interest groups propose them without regard to local communities that would be directly impacted,” said Kathleen Sgamma, who directs government and public affairs for the Western Energy Alliance, which represents 400 oil and gas companies. “We hope that today’s acknowledgment of the proper use of land planning to protect wilderness quality lands will enable the government to proceed with the balanced management of public lands in Utah.”
Environmentalists criticized the move, although they said they held out hope the administration would move ahead with its wilderness inventory and push for greater protections once the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1 and the legislative rider is no longer in effect.
Heidi McIntosh, associate director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said the announcement “recognizes the reality that the wild lands policy has been defunded for most of the rest of the year.” But she said the administration needs to recognize that it “can still protect lands in their natural condition regardless of the continuing resolution, and that’s what the federal law requires.”
Tim Mahoney, policy director of the Pew Campaign for America’s Wilderness, said activists would have to work with Congress and the administration in the months ahead if they hoped to institute broader wilderness safeguards than what Salazar is now proposing. “This does not adequately protect land, and that is what is required,” he said.