WASHINGTON – Under pressure from Congress, the Obama administration is backing away from a plan to make millions of acres of undeveloped land in the West eligible for federal wilderness protection.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a memo Wednesday that his agency will not designate any of those public lands as “wild lands.” Instead Salazar said officials will work with members of Congress to develop recommendations for managing millions of acres of undeveloped land in the West.
“The protection of America’s wilderness for hunting, fishing and backcountry recreation should be a unifying issue that mobilizes us to a common purpose,” Salazar said. “We will focus our effort on building consensus around locally supported initiatives.”
Salazar’s decision reverses an order issued in December to restore eligibility for wilderness protection to millions of acres of public lands. That policy overturned a Bush-era approach that opened some Western lands to commercial development.
A budget deal approved by Congress prevented the Interior Department from spending money to implement the wilderness policy. GOP lawmakers complained that the plan would circumvent Congress’ authority and could be used to declare a vast swath of public land off-limits to oil and gas drilling.
Republican governors in Utah, Alaska and Wyoming filed suit to block the plan, saying it would hurt their economies by making lands unavailable for mineral production and other uses.
William Meadows, president of the Wilderness Society, said the decision ignores the Bureau of Land Management’s obligation to protect wilderness values.
“Without strong and decisive action from the Department of Interior, wilderness will not be given the protection it is due, putting millions of acres of public lands at risk,” Meadows said.
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, a Republican who had traveled to Washington to testify against the wild lands policy, said he was grateful that Salazar was “stepping back to reconsider the implications of his wild lands policy.” The chairman of the Western Governors’ Association said he was glad input was being sought from governors and local land users.