Eighteen back-country areas in nine states — including prospective areas for natural gas and oil exploration — deserve protection by Congress as national conservation or wilderness areas, according to a preliminary report issued on Thursday by the Department of Interior.

The list of areas to be considered by Congress are managed primarily by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) where there is “significant” local support for protection, said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

BLM Director Bob Abbey said there is room for more wilderness areas even as the agency pushes for more energy development.

“As we continue our push to responsibly expand oil, gas, coal, solar, wind, geothermal and other resource development on public land, we also have a responsibility to expand the back-country recreational and outdoor opportunities that generate billions of dollars in revenue for local economies across the West,” said Abbey. “Resource development and resource protection go hand in hand and, in fact, are part of a proud bipartisan tradition on which I hope Congress will build.”

Salazar said Interior had “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.”

The states and areas to be considered for protection include:

Alaska, Arizona and Wyoming also are on the list, but the report said “additional dialogue and consensus-building” were needed to identify priority areas and to resolve key issues.

Interior Deputy Secretary David J. Hayes and Abbey were charged with compiling the preliminary list of BLM lands that merited consideration by Congress based on input from Congress, state and county officials, tribes and other interested parties.

“The back-country areas we identify in this report are by no means the only public lands that may deserve protection by Congress, but this preliminary list of possibilities shows that there is a compelling case for bipartisan legislative action to conserve lands for recreation, protection, and enjoyment,” said Hayes. “From Devil’s Staircase in Oregon to Beauty Mountain in Southern California, local communities and elected officials from both sides of the aisle have developed conservation proposals that deserve serious consideration and action by Congress.”

BLM currently manages more than 245 million surface acres of land nationwide, primarily in 12 western states. Since the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964, Congress has designated close to 8.7 million acres of BLM land as wilderness, or roughly 3.5% of the land that the agency manages.

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