WASHINGTON – Western Republican governors and members of Congress vowed Tuesday to fight an Obama administration “wild lands” initiative they say could prevent oil and gas drilling on millions of acres of federal land.
The policy would require the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to identify backcountry lands in its inventory that have wilderness characteristics and designate them as wild lands. The lands would be managed to preserve their wilderness attributes.
Western GOP leaders called the policy a thinly disguised effort to create new wilderness without congressional approval, shutting off mineral exploration and other development.
“In a time when many Western communities are fighting for their economic lives, and when the nation is reeling from its reliance on foreign sources, this administration is trying to lock up our energy resources,” said U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador, Idaho’s freshman congressman.
Labrador introduced House Resolution 846, which would require congressional approval for any wild lands designations in Idaho. BLM manages about 12 million acres in the state.
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter testified at a House Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday, calling the plan “a drastic change in public policy for public lands that was done without public input.”
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced plans in December to reverse a Bush-era policy and make millions of acres of public land again eligible for wilderness protection. The plan replaces a 2003 policy – dubbed by critics as “No More Wilderness” – that opened Western lands to commercial development.
Salazar called the policy a “common-sense approach” that restores balance. Identifying and keeping an inventory of BLM lands with wilderness characteristics is important to future decision making, he said. The agency manages 245 million acres in the United States.
“Americans love the wild places where they hunt, fish, hike and get away from it all, and they expect these lands to be protected wisely on their behalf,” Salazar said in December.
BLM Director Bob Abbey testified Tuesday that wild lands designations don’t necessarily preclude motorized access or new mining claims.
The wild lands policy “provides local communities and the public with a strong voice in the decisions affecting the nation’s public lands,” he told the committee. A designated wild land couldn’t become a federally protected wilderness area without congressional approval.
In an interview, Abbey said planning has already begun, and designation of the first wild lands could occur as soon as this summer in Idaho, Wyoming and Alaska. He denied that the plan is unpopular in the West, citing letters of support from recreation and conservation groups and the outdoor industry.
A group of recreation business owners and outfitters from six Western states said in a letter to Congress this week that conservation of public lands is good business.
“Rural counties with wilderness or other protected federal lands experience greater economic and population growth than those without wilderness,” the letter said, citing research by the Colorado-based Outdoor Industry Association.