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BLM Will Not Designate 'Wild Lands'

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Wednesday the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), as required by the budget deal for the current fiscal year, will not administratively designate any lands as "wild lands," which opens the door for oil and natural gas production and other activities on these lands.

The budget deal for the remainder of the year, which was negotiated in mid-April, prohibited Interior from using federal funds to implement its wild lands order (see Daily GPI, Dec. 27, 2010). Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, called the December order a "back door attempt to implement de facto wilderness [lands] and potentially place millions of acres of land off-limits to public recreation, energy production and job-creating activities," without first getting the consent of Congress (see Daily GPI, April 18).

Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, also agreed that Interior had tried to skirt Congress with its "wild lands" order. "Both the Senate and the House have been clear that Congress retains sole authority and responsibility to designate lands for inclusion in the National Wilderness System. That's how I believe it should be and I will work to ensure that the current ban on creating wilderness -- by any name -- unilaterally by the administration is continued in the next budget resolution," she said.

In Interior's December order, Salazar directed the BLM to administratively designate appropriate areas with wilderness characteristics under its jurisdiction as "wild lands" and to manage them to protect their wilderness values. The "wild lands" would differ from the already established "wilderness areas" in that they would be designated by an administrative fiat and could be changed administratively. Wilderness areas are voted on by Congress and require legislation to change.

In a memo to BLM Director Bob Abbey Wednesday, Salazar directed the agency to consider lands that may be candidates for congressionally approved wilderness protection. "I am directing Deputy Secretary David Hayes to work with BLM and interested parties to develop recommendations regarding the management of BLM lands with wilderness characteristics," Salazar wrote.

Moreover, he said Interior will be "soliciting input from members of Congress, state and local officials, tribes and federal land managers to identify BLM lands that may be appropriate candidates for congressional protection under the Wilderness Act. I am directing the deputy secretary to work with the BLM to deliver a report to me and to the Congress regarding these areas."

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead immediately applauded the action, saying the reversal was in "the best interest of Wyoming and the entire West." Matt said he had talked with Salazar and thanked him for "listening to the people of Wyoming." The governor reiterated his contention that the BLM order would have had "serious effects" on Wyoming's economy.

Kathleen Sgamma, director of government and public affairs for the Western Energy Alliance, applauded Salazar's support for input from local communities. "Many proposals for wilderness designation have failed in Congress because far-away and special interest groups proposed them without regard to local communities that would be directly impacted," she said.

BLM currently manages 221 wilderness areas and 545 wilderness study areas designated by Congress, which comprise approximately 8.8% of the nearly 245 million acres managed by the BLM, according to Interior.

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