House committee questions Abbey over Wild Lands

Mar 18, 2011

The Department of Interior has stubbornly dug in its heels over challenges to its contentious Wild Lands Order which directs the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to protect lands having the "characteristics" of wilderness without the consent of Congress. Indeed, two weeks ago, Bob Abbey, director of BLM, ran a guest editorial in scores of western newspapers, including the Western Livestock Journal (WLJ), in which he redoubled his efforts to persuade the public that the Wild Lands Order is merely benign "guidance" to BLM for the management of lands with wilderness characteristics, and does not dictate any actual land-use policies. Abbey described the direction provided by the Wild Lands Order as being a "common-sense approach" to managing wilderness values on public land which "restores balance and clarity" to the BLM’s multiple-use mandate.

But many western lawmakers and governors aren’t buying the talk. On March 1, the House Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Congressman Doc Hastings, R-WA, held a hearing on "The Impact of the Administration’s Wild Lands Order on Jobs and Economic Growth." Among those testifying against the Wild Lands policy were Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter and Utah Gov. Gary H. Herbert, both of whom voiced concern that Wild Lands designations will severely impact the rural economies of their states, which depend heavily on gas, oil, and mineral extraction, as well as livestock grazing.

Otter testified that the development of the Wild Lands regulations involved no public or congressional input, claiming that the administration’s allegedly public approach to land management decisions lacked transparency, and put the new regime at odds with vital, existing uses such as grazing.

"The Order … placed a higher priority on protection of "wilderness characteristics" than other multiple uses," asserted Otter. "This drastic change in ‘public’ policy for ‘public’ lands was done without ‘public’ input."

"There are concerns about the effects that BLM’s new ‘Wild Lands’ management direction will have on grazing and the subsequent economic consequences to the ranchers who have BLM leases and who have been good stewards of public lands," Otter continued. "If the BLM had developed its new designation in a public forum and provided for congressional approval, these concerns would have been addressed."

"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 processes of the Federal Lands Policy and Management Act to one that places significant and sweeping authority in the hands of unelected federal bureaucrats," Otter concluded.

Testifying on behalf of Utah, Herbert argued that the new Wild Lands designation illegally creates wilderness by circumventing the authority entrusted to Congress.

"This action usurps the authority of Congress, and for the first time ever, creates a favored category for multiple use management, creates new levels of centralized bureaucratic review, contains vague, inconsistent and overly broad definitions of Wild Lands, and lacks clarity as to what is wilderness and what is subject to multiple use and development," stated Herbert.

Approximately 220 million acres of BLM land could potentially be designated as Wild Lands through the new policy. Although the Wild Lands directive does not explicitly instruct BLM managers to ban motorized activities and natural resource use, many western lawmakers are concerned that the sweeping requirement that Wild Lands be managed to "protect wilderness values" will amount to the same thing. At very least, the directive makes it unclear which activities will be allowed on Wild Lands, and which will not. Moreover, many critics are skeptical that the Interior Department’s billing of the Wild Lands designation as merely being "one option" for land use planning is misleading. The question that remains to be clarified is, what kind of circumstances have to occur for a Wild Lands designation not to be appropriate? The concern is that those circumstances are so complex and unlikely that despite any amount of "local public input" to the contrary, a Wild Lands designation on land with wilderness characteristics is all but a foregone conclusion.

In an exclusive interview with WLJ, Congressman Rob Bishop, R-UT, emphasized that the lack of clarity regarding which uses will be permitted on Wild Lands threatens natural resource users whose businesses need some assurances of stability. Lacking these, some businesses have already considered pulling up stakes and taking their jobs elsewhere.

"If you’re a business person, and even in ag, you have to have some kind of guarantee that what happens five years down the road will be consistent with what is happening (now so) you can plan for it," observed Bishop.

But the "flexibility" of Wild Lands management, which leaves open whether specific uses will be allowed, creates an untenable business climate for natural resource users.

Also at issue at the hearing was the importance of Wild Lands to the growing recreation industry in the West. The administration has repeatedly suggested that recreation is increasingly replacing natural resources as the primary economic opportunity for rural economic stability.

Bishop agreed that recreation does bring in a significant amount of revenue to state coffers. But he disagreed that creating Wild Lands was necessary for maintaining recreation, and pointed out that economically, recreation cannot be rural economies’ sole support.

"The recreation opportunities are already there," Bishop explained. "…If you make recreation be the exclusive type of occupation … you harm the overall economic fiber of the community. If we are actually going to create … an economy in Utah that is going to sustain our kids for education, I’ve got to have agriculture, I’ve got to have recreation, I’ve got to have manufacturing and mining."

"[Recreation] is a part of the solution, it needs to be there, it needs to be assisted to make sure it’s vibrant, but it’s not a replacement for the other sectors that give the full economic vitality to an area."

Abbey, Peter Metcalf, CEO and president of recreational equipment company Black Diamond Equipment, Ltd., and Mark Squillace, director of the Natural Recourse Law Center at University of Colorado Law School, testified in favor of the Wild Lands Order.

Several other congressional hearings have been planned to continue the discussion of this contentious issue. Further, Abbey will also be planning a series of "listening sessions" throughout the West to garner public input on the new designation.

In other developments, according to Bishop, language to specifically prohibit money being spent on implementation of Wild Lands designations has been added to the continuing resolution for funding of the 2011 budget in hopes of temporarily de-funding the initiative.

"I’m not buying what they’re saying," says Bishop, who remained unconvinced by Abbey’s testimony. "This is the wrong approach. This is harming the economic climate of the West. I find it ironic that the only people who seem to be positive about what Abbey is doing are those who either don’t live in the West, or those who have a special interest in creating more wilderness. The overwhelming majority of elected officials simply are telling (Ken) Salazar this is wrong-headed." — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent