After strong opposition from several Western states and a pending lawsuit, Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is backing down from his controversial “Wild Lands” policy.
The announcement comes on the heels of a law suit proposed by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, which was also supported by governors from Wyoming and Alaska, as well as the recent budget deal which prevented the Interior Department from funding the plan.
“I am confirming today that the Bureau of Land Management will not designate land as ‘Wild Lands,’” Salazar said in a memo to Bob Abbey, director of the Bureau of Land Management.
Instead, Salazar said he would work with locally supported efforts to preserve wilderness.
“We will focus our effort on building consensus around locally supported initiatives and working with members of Congress, states, tribes and local communites to advance their priorities for wilderness designations in their states and districts,” he said in a release this week. “Together, we can advance America’s proud wilderness legacy for future generations.”
But considering Salazar aide Scott Black told the Casper Star-Tribune in Feburary, “I don’t think you should expect material delay or change in the direction of the (Wild Lands policy),” it leaves one wondering: What made Salazar change his mind?
Last month, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert introduced a lawsuit attempting to void the the “Wild Lands” policy. At a press conference introducing the legislation, Herbert described the order as “being created out of thin air” — a reference to the fact that the secretarial order was introduced when Congress was adjourned for the holidays.
In describing the bill, Herbert pointed to the fact that the Wild Lands policy would override state processes for development of public land.
“It puts a wet blanket on the processes we have in place already here in Utah to determine wilderness,” Herbert said. “Our concern is that this does not help us find out what areas are wilderness, this just gets in the way of a process we’ve already utilized. This jeopardizes the multiple use of our public lands.”
Almost immediately after Utah filed the suit, Alaska was ready to support the legal proceedings, and last week Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead and the state of Wyoming filed papers to join the litigation.
After Salazar’s announcement that he would be reversing the plan, Herbert was quick to issue a statement declaring victory.
“This is a win for Utah’s county by county process, which has proven successful in identifying wilderness,” he said in a statement. “I have defended Utah’s process in my multiple conversations with Secretary Salazar and Deputy (Interior Secretar David) Hayes, so I am pleased they are listening.”
“This may be a step in the right direction, but Utah will remain vigilant and engaged on this critical front,” Herbert added.
The lawsuit, coupled with the budget bill that defunded the plan, may have finally doomed the “Wild Lands” policy, but since its introduction in late December, the policy has been heavily contested in many Western states rich with public lands.
The vague language of the order and the the unknown effects the proposed order would have on a number of people who use public land for work or play were main reasons the secretarial order was so heavily criticized, said Michelle Subbotin, communications director for Utah Rep. Rob Bishop.
“The Wild Lands policy would not have allowed public lands users “to be included in an open and public process,” she said. “At the end of the day, people want their voices to be heard.”
The secretarial order most simply moved determining wilderness areas from Congress, as designated by the Wilderness Act of 1964, to the BLM, but left many questions about how and which lands would be designated.
“We’re pleased that (the Obama Administration) intends to uphold the intentions of the Wilderness Act of 1964,” Subbotin said.
Environmental groups criticized Salazar’s announcement Wednesday. In a blog post, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance Executive Director Scott Groene called the Obama administration “a steady and enormous disappointment on public lands.”