Salazar plays it safe with wilderness recommendations

Nov 25, 2011

Disappointed wilderness advocates used the words “meager” and “pathetic” to describe Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar’s most recent recommendations to Congress for creating new wilderness designations.

The report, issued mid November, is the culmination of several months of interaction between Interior, local governments and stakeholders to identify public lands “crown jewels” worthy of wilderness protection.

While many in the natural resource industries were bracing for wide-reaching recommendations, the official list of 18 recommended backcountry sites across nine states is generally agreed to reflect widespread local support and to be largely uncontroversial.

Yet some in the pro-wilderness camp felt that the secretary’s report didn’t go nearly far enough. In a scathing commentary posted on his organization’s website, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance Executive Director Scott Groene complained that the report “omits upwards of 90 percent of Utah’s redrock wilderness and is based on 30-year-old and grossly deficient BLM inventories. The list includes just a few hundred thousand acres of already protected land in Utah, in contrast to the nearly 9 million acres of magnificent Bureau of Land management (BLM) lands that deserve wilderness designation.”

Salazar’s proposal for Utah is limited to Desolation Canyon, Westwater Canyon and Mill Creek Canyon Wilderness Study Areas, located primarily in Grand County.

The administration’s current push for wilderness comes as a decidedly low key follow-up to Salazar’s hugely controversial Wild Lands policy, which sought to create wilderness-like protections for so-called “lands with wilderness characteristics” by administrative means. Salazar eventually shelved the policy following its defunding by Congress this summer.

The current recommendations represent a significant departure from the ambitious Wild Lands order. The majority of the 18 sites recommended as wilderness are already Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs), meaning that they may have been under wilderness management for years. Some examples include Beauty Mountain WSA in California, Bull Gulch WSA in Colorado, Boulder- White Clouds WSA in Idaho, and Sleeping Giant and Sheep Creek WSAs in Montana. Should Congress approve Salazar’s recommendations for these and other WSAs, management on the ground will change very little. The only significant difference will be that their wilderness status will become permanent.

Salazar has underlined the fact that a number of the proposed areas also have bipartisan support, such as Beauty Mountain and Boulder-White Clouds, which have been recommended by Reps. Darrell Issa, R-CA, and Mike Simpson, R-ID, respectively.

“From President Theodore Roosevelt’s bold steps to establish national parks, wildlife refuges and forests, to President Obama signing the 2009 Public Lands bill into law in his first days in office, America has a proud bipartisan tradition of protecting the backcountry that matters most to hunters, fishermen, and our families,” said Salazar in a statement. “We have heard from local communities, elected officials, and others that Montana’s Sleeping Giant, Nevada’s Pine Forest Range, and New Mexico’s Rio Grande del Norte are among the many places that deserve protection by Congress for future generations. Building on the president’s America’s Great Outdoors initiative, I am hopeful that these areas can help form a strong foundation for a bipartisan conservation agenda for this Congress.”

Yet reviews from both sides of the aisle were mixed.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-UT, who has been an outspoken critic of Salazar’s public lands initiatives, lent tentative support to the report.

“While I am not opposed to new wilderness, I have consistently stated that the process should be driven from the bottom up, not from the top down,” Bishop stated. “However, I am pleased that for the most part, Secretary Salazar has initially respected requests from 21 Utah counties to be left out of this report. The long-term solutions for these lands in question will come from a locallydriven process, not from dictates out of Washington.”

However, Bishop emphasized that the wilderness discussion needs to address the management of hundreds of WSAs and roadless areas across the West, many of which have been off limits to many uses since the 1970s without being designated as wilderness.

“While we are considering lands for additional protections, the Interior Department has to include as part of the discussion federal lands that are currently locked up that could and should be managed for multiple use, or given back to the states altogether,” observed Bishop. “That element appears to be missing from the report and Interior’s general dialogue.”

Legislation is currently pending in Congress that would release back into multiple use WSAs and roadless areas that agency has determined are unsuitable for wilderness.

In an uncharacteristic departure from widespread Democratic support for Salazar’s public lands proposals, Rep. Jim Matheson, D-UT, voiced dissatisfaction with what he considered to be Salazar’s strong-arm approach to engaging local communities in a federal push for wilderness.

“I am deeply disappointed that Interior Secretary Salazar continues to be tone-deaf about public lands issues in Utah,” Matheson stated. “As our success in Washington County shows, wilderness proposals must be the result of a grass-roots, stakeholder driven process, rather than a top-down decree.”

By contrast, Rep. Ed Markey, D-MA, lent strong support to the recommendations, accusing Republicans of selling out public lands to natural resource users.

“We need to get our priorities straight about America’s public lands, and the Obama administration is putting us on the right path,” Markey said in a statement. “We should conserve our public lands for future generations, not hold a fire sale of our last remaining wilderness areas as some Republican leaders in Washington have suggested.”

Although the recommended wilderness areas in the Interior report are not as extensive as many feared, or hoped, Salazar made clear in the preamble to the document that the current recommendations are merely a beginning to what he envisions as far more extensive proposals, stating: “[T]his report does not purport to identify all lands that deserve congressional action. To the contrary, there are a large number of well-deserving, additional candidates for congressional action. …While there are many additional areas that deserve attention, and that certainly could (and perhaps should) have been included, this report provides an important starting point for discussions on Capitol Hill.”

The fact that Interior’s current wilderness report is just the tip of the iceberg will surely mean different things to different people. Depending on one’s view of wilderness, Salazar’s promise may constitute welcome news or a very ominous portent. — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent