OGJ Washington Editor
WASHINGTON, DC, Mar. 3 -- US Department of the Interior Sec. Ken Salazar didn’t bother to consult with governors or local leaders before issuing his Dec. 23 order for the US Bureau of Land Management to conduct inventories of land with wilderness characteristics (LWC), two governors of states with extensive federal holdings told a US House Committee.
“Without any state or public input, the Interior Department has circumvented the sovereignty of states and the will of the public by shifting from the normal planning process of the Federal Lands Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) to one that places significant and sweeping authority in the hands of unelected federal bureaucrats,” Idaho Gov. C.L. (Butch) Otter told the House Natural Resources Committee.
Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert said Salazar’s order “cavalierly casts aside” a 2003 agreement that his predecessor, Michael O. Leavitt, reached with then-Interior Sec. Gale A. Norton “to avoid litigation and to provide certainty for those who rely on consistent, clear management policies for BLM lands.
“Instead, this new order will likely lead to renewed litigation while slamming the door shut on citizens and communities that are simply seeking certainty in the public lands management process,” Herbert declared.
Salazar said at the time that he issued Order 3310 to restore policies that were followed before Norton and Leavitt reached the 2003 settlement. It directs BLM, based on public and local community input through its existing planning process, to designate appropriate areas with wilderness characteristics as “wild lands” and to manage them to protect their wilderness values.
BLM issued guidance to its state and field offices for doing this on Feb. 25. “The new manuals set out a two-step process for inventorying and managing lands that may have wilderness characteristics,” BLM Director Robert V. Abbey testified later in the hearing. “The first step is to maintain an inventory of LWCs as required under Section 201 of FLPMA…. Step two of the process, deciding how LWCs should be managed, is an open, public process undertaken through BLM’s land use planning process.”
Wild lands will not be wilderness or wilderness study areas, he emphasized. Their designation may be revisited, if necessary, through a subsequent public process, and allowed uses in them may include some form of motorized and mechanized travel. “Allowed uses in each specific wild land will be determined by the land use plan governing those lands and will be accomplished through a process that allows the public and local communities full access to that decision-making,” Abbey said. “Those decisions will be made locally, not in Washington, DC.”
County officials at the hearing still expressed their concerns. “As an initial matter, it is important to understand what Order 3310 actually requires,” said Sublette County (Wyo.) Commissioner Joel Bousman. “First, it requires BLM to protect potential LWCs during the planning process so as to not foreclose the option of actually designating them in the final plan. Even with a conservative approach, the temporary ‘setting aside’ of possible LWCs could lead to hundreds of thousands of acres being rendered functionally useless for at least 3 years and likely much longer.”
Phillips County (Mont.) Commissioner Lesley Robinson said that 4 of the top 15 taxpayers there are natural gas companies employing 100 people full-time. “Special designations such as wild lands create more restrictions, which leads to the loss of families in our community,” he told the committee. “If even one ranch or gas company family leaves the county due to increased restrictions, it will have a noticeable impact on our economy due to loss of income and fewer volunteers to run our ambulance, fire department, and other local services.”
‘Green energy’ obstacle
The order also could have unintended consequences for other DOI projects, warned Uintah County (Utah) Commissioner Mike McKee. “Proponents of this policy forget that it will also prohibit wind turbines and transmission lines that are necessary for the green energy promoted by the Interior secretary,” he said. “For 2 years, we have heard how the administration will fund and subsidize wind turbines, solar energy farms, and the transmission lines necessary to put these alternative energy projects into the electrical power grid. Many energy projects are proposed for public lands, without considering the fact that these structures will violate the wild lands policy.”
Another witness expressed support for Salazar’s order. “For too long, the outdoor industry’s contribution to the American economy has been overlooked,” said Peter Metcalf, chief executive and cofounder of Black Diamond Equipment, an outdoor recreation equipment manufacturer with US operations in Salt Lake City. “Our industry is highly recession-resistant, contributes over $730 billion to the American economy each year, and generates $88 billion in annual state and federal tax revenue. The active outdoor recreation economy supports 6.5 million American jobs. This ain’t pocket change.”
Democrats on the committee also argued that preserving areas’ wilderness characteristics can create jobs. “While the nation, and even the world, is suffering through a difficult recession, the story of most communities in the West since the Wilderness Act was enacted in 1964 has been one of explosive growth and prosperity,” said Ranking Minority Member Edward J. Markey (Mass.). “Much of this has been driven by tourism, recreation, and a rich quality of life, all based on an abundance of beautiful, open space.”
Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) saw a different situation. “This secretarial order will disproportionately affect rural communities, which depend on public lands for their livelihoods,” he said. “These communities have already been hit hard by onerous existing federal restrictions and by the current economic crisis. They suffer from some of the highest unemployment rates in the country. The wild lands order threatens to inflict further economic pain.” He added that the Mar. 1 hearing would be the first of many in what he promised would be vigorous oversight of DOI’s natural resource activities.
Contact Nick Snow at email@example.com.