Full impact of Salazar's 'wild lands' order still uncertain

Nick Snow
OGJ Washington Editor

WASHINGTON, DC, Dec. 30 -- One week after US Interior Sec. Ken Salazar directed the US Bureau of Land Management to conduct an inventory of its holdings and designate areas with wilderness characteristics as “wild lands” to be managed accordingly, it still wasn’t clear what the order’s full impact would be.

It was not certain, for example, whether Secretarial Order 3310 would affect a decision, which BLM’s Wyoming state office announced on Dec. 21, rejecting all but two protests of leases awarded in an August 2009 oil and gas lease sale. At least one of the protests cited an area’s wilderness characteristics.

The order restores wilderness management guidance which then-Sec. Gale A. Norton revoked in 2003 as part of an out-of-court settlement with the State of Utah and other interested parties, Salazar and Bureau of Land Management Direct Robert V. Abbey said on Dec. 23.

Abbey said the “wild lands” would be designated through a public process and managed to protect wilderness characteristics unless or until a new public process modifies the designation. “The new policy affirms BLM's authorities under the law—and our responsibility to the American people—to protect the wilderness characteristics of the lands we oversee as part of our multiple use mission,” he maintained.

Abbey said because it can be modified, the classification differs from wilderness areas, which Congress establishes and potentially can modify with legislation, and wilderness study areas, which BLM typically manages as wilderness until Congress decides to protect them permanently as wilderness or modify their management. The new order does not affect management of either federal wilderness or wilderness study areas, Abbey emphasized.

‘High priority’
“Simple principles guide this commonsense policy,” said Salazar. “First, the protection of wild lands is important to the American people and should therefore be a high priority in BLM's management policies. Second, the public should have a say in designating certain public lands as ‘wild lands’ and expanding those areas or modifying their management over time. And third, we should know more about which American lands remain wild so we can make wise choices, informed by science, for our children, grandchildren and future generations.”

One of the organizations that protested tracts awarded in that August 2009 oil and gas lease sale in Wyoming applauded Salazar’s move. “The secretary has given an early Christmas present to the American people, and particularly to Wyoming residents who love our great outdoors," Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with the Laramie-based Biodiversity Conservation Alliance (BCA), said in a Dec. 23 statement.

Kathleen Sgamma, government affairs director at the Western Energy Alliance (formerly the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States) in Denver, was more critical. “It’s arbitrary government, not the rule of law. It’s a move away from economic development and multiple land use to arbitrary conservation,” she told OGJ by phone in a Dec. 28 interview.

She suggested that Salazar’s order was a way to circumvent the Federal Lands Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), BLM’s established planning process which already involves state and local governments, property owners, oil and gas producers, recreational groups, environmental organizations, and other stakeholders in multiple land use policy decisions.

Sgamma said that Salazar’s order “definitely ignores the multiple use mandate in BLM’s own organic act” and “essentially ignores elected officials’ wishes,” adding, “It’s an additional step in the wrong direction.” The agency already has deferred leasing in the proposed Red Rocks Wilderness Area, “even though the bill which would authorize it hasn’t passed Congress for two decades,” she noted.

Wyoming decision
In the 37-page Dec. 21 announcement dismissing all but two of the protests in the August 2009 lease sale, Larry Claypool, deputy director for minerals and lands in BLM’s Wyoming state office, said that BCA, in one of its protests, argued that oil and gas development has led to and will continue to fragment wildlife habitats that otherwise might “serve as quiet, serene places of natural beauty, and provide excellent recreational opportunities.”

He noted that FLPMA requires BLM to require public lands and resources under the multiple use and sustained yield concept. That includes “a combination of balanced and diverse resource uses taking into account the long-term needs of future generations for renewable and nonrenewable resources including, but not limited to, recreation, range, timber, minerals, watershed, wildlife and fish, and natural scenic, scientific, and historical values,” he indicated.

Claypool said FLPMA also requires BLM field offices to develop and maintain a resource management plan. “During preparation of the RMP, and prior to issuing any oil and gas leases, BLM performs an environmental analysis under [the National Environmental Policy Act] which discloses anticipated impacts that can result from leasing and subsequent oil and gas development on the environment, including the public lands and its resources. As a result, BLM develops appropriate mitigation and protection measures, such as lease stipulations, before [it] issues any oil and gas lease,” he said.

“FLPMA does not require BLM to analyze every aspect of a transaction to make sure any actions by BLM will protect the long-term viability of the public lands,” Claypool continued. “Nevertheless, BLM has prepared an environmental assessment of the impacts of the lease sale and we disagree with the protesters’ argument that BLM has not performed sufficient NEPA analysis to disclose the potential impacts of oil and gas development before issuing an oil and gas lease.”

He said the decision may be appealed to the land appeals board in Salazar’s office within 30 days, and that groups or individuals filing such motions could petition for a stay of the decision pending appeal. OGJ was unable to reach BCA or its officials by telephone or e-mail to determine whether the group plans to take these or other actions in this matter.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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