Interior Secretary Ken Salazar issued an order on Thursday directing the Bureau of Land Management, the nation’s largest public lands agency, to create a new “wild lands” jurisdiction intended to provide more protection for lands considered to have wilderness values.
The order restores a wilderness policy to the BLM, which has been without one since 2003 when its previous wilderness policy was struck from the agency’s handbook in an out-of-court settlement between former Interior Secretary Gale Norton, the state of Utah and others.
“The bottom line is, the lands with wilderness characteristics now will have a significant place at the table so they are not seen as they have been under past policies, which was something not to be valued,” Salazar told reporters at a press conference at the outdoor gear retail giant REI store in Denver.
Salazar said the new category would put wilderness values “on the same platform” as other land uses, including oil and gas drilling.
“After seven or eight years of ignoring some of these lands, we are moving forward aggressively to make sure these values are taken into account,” BLM Director Bob Abbey said.
The new “wild lands” designation would be implemented through a public process to manage lands to protect wilderness characteristics. Unlike wilderness areas, which are created by Congress, and wilderness study areas, which the BLM typically manages as if it were wilderness until Congress acts, wild lands could have their designation changed at a later time by the BLM.
The order also directs the BLM to maintain an inventory of public land with wilderness characteristics. It doesn’t affect existing wilderness or wilderness study areas.
“We are charting a new course for balanced land management which allows the BLM to take into account all of the resources for which it is responsible through a transparent, public land use planning process,” Abbey said.
With the outdoor gear retailer as a backdrop, Salazar pitched the move as a job creator, rather than one that would threaten oil and gas jobs.
“The tired and simply wrong debate of jobs versus preservation has been replaced by a jobs versus jobs discussion,” said Peter Metcalf, CEO of Black Diamond Equipment, who appeared with Salazar and has advocated on behalf of public land protections.
The BLM manages 245 million acres of land in 11 western states and Alaska, including 8.7 million acres preserved as wilderness and 13 million acres designated as wilderness study areas.