Salazar accused of Wild Lands return

Aug 17, 2012

Western congressional representatives have raised the red flag on Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar, claiming that new Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manuals for conducting wilderness inventories effectively reissue key elements of Salazar’s highly controversial Wild Lands policy, which was stripped of funding by Congress last April. Critics argue that the new guidance will lead to wide-scale designations of “lands with wilderness characteristics” to be administratively managed according to standards similar to those which apply to congressionally designated wilderness areas.

In a letter signed by 19 western congressmen, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-UT, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R- UT, called out Salazar for releasing the “latest rendition” of Wild Lands in BLM manuals 6310 and 6320. Although the term “Wild Lands” is not mentioned in the manuals, defining language of the policy appears in the new manuals close to verbatim, the congressmen claim.

“Once again, the Obama Administration shows its ‘Washington knows best’ mentality,” Hatch said in a press release. “Even though these proposals have already been overwhelmingly rejected, the Ad ministration

is attempting to administratively put these policies in place. …It’s wrong, and the Interior Department needs to stop trying to keep the public off public lands,” Hatch concluded.

From its inception in December 2010, critics claimed that the new classification of “Wild Lands,” brought into existence by Salazar’s Secretarial Order 3310, would administratively create de facto wilderness areas and so override Congress’ exclusive authority to designate wilderness. Utah and other western states vigorously opposed the policy on the grounds that it would illegally make large amounts of land inaccessible to economically important uses such as oil, gas, and mineral extraction and motorized vehicle access.

Similarities noted between the new guidance and the defunct Wild Lands policy include the identification a broad range of events that can trigger wilderness inventories, including National Environmental Policy Act analyses and citizen wilderness nominations. Although BLM is required to conduct periodic wilderness inventories, the new instructions would give the agency “carte blanche authority” to perform an inventory under an unacceptably wide range of circumstances, according to a statement summarizing the congressmen’s criticisms.

Among other concerns was an apparent downplaying of the “naturalness” requirement for identifying land with wilderness characteristics. Although the Wilderness Act establishes that lands qualify as wilderness only if they “generally appear[s] to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable,” the manuals council agency personnel to ‘[a]void an overly strict approach to assessing naturalness.” This, critics claim, will lead to an inherent weakening of the criteria for identifying potential wilderness areas, similar to language in the Wild Lands policy.

Following the defunding of Wild Lands last year, Salazar offered an olive branch to angry western lawmakers by saying that the policy had been tabled in favor of pursuing a wilderness policy with broader public support. In light of these promises, the prospect that Wild Lands is being smuggled back into BLM guidance documents, albeit without the controversial name tag, has western congressmen demanding an explanation.

“I am troubled and angered by similarities found between the contents of the hand books and the defunct Wild Lands proposal,” wrote Bishop, one of the fiercest critics of the original Wild Lands policy. “This is clearly an effort to establish ‘Wild Lands 2.0’ and abandons all previous commitments Secretary Salazar made to me and many other western Members to work openly and collaboratively on new land management practices. Excerpts within these handbooks clearly depict a thinly veiled effort on behalf of this Administration to further limit access to our nation’s public lands,” Bishop concluded.

In their letter to the secretary, Bishop and his supporters have demanded the immediate withdrawal of the controversial manuals, and requested a briefing with Salazar to discuss the reasons behind what they view as the resurfacing of Wild Lands policy, as well as to create opportunities for public input for writing new wilderness manuals.

In response to the request, BLM spokesman Mitch Snow informed E&E News that Bureau manuals are written internally as a matter of policy, and are not available for public comment. Snow added that BLM currently has no intention of withdrawing the controversial manuals, citing concerns that withdrawing them could violate the Federal Lands Management Policy Act.

E&E News also reported that BLM insists the new manuals are substantially different from the previous Wild Land policy. For example, the new guidance does not require the state and national directors of BLM to review plans that could impair lands with wilderness characteristics, or create a national database documenting those lands, BLM claimed.

Given BLM’s position on the issue, it remains unclear whether the agency will comply with the congressmen’s demands. A refusal, however, could lead to more heavy-handed attempts to tamp down wilderness policies that many western lawmakers claim undermine the mandate of multiple use on the public lands. There is also a question of whether, if the new guidance is substantially similar to the defunded Wild Lands policy, the administration has illegally attempted to “skirt the Congressional funding prohibition” on Wild Lands by simply calling Wild Lands something else, as Bishop and his supporters have suggested.

“It’s clear that the removal of these terms does not change the underlying policy of identifying, managing, and elevating lands with wilderness characteristics,” Bishop and his critics stated in a summary document. “The policy objectives and underlying goals, however, remain the same: to administratively identify and manage lands with wilderness characteristics.” — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent