The Wilderness Society lashed out Thursday at Bush Administration plans to expand oil and gas drilling in protected areas, calling for measures aimed at conservation rather than “drilling America first.”

The wildlife group published and then attacked a Department of Interior draft of items to be considered for inclusion in the national energy policy being formulated by Vice President Cheney’s Energy Task Force.

The DOI report details a game plan for making more public lands available for oil and gas drilling as advocated by President Bush and Interior Secretary Gale Norton in recent weeks. It is directed toward increasing the amount of land available for energy development, and removing unnecessary restrictions. It advocates revoking “withdrawals” of certain lands from mineral leasing, and pushing for a congressional decision on which lands among the 17 million acres of “wilderness study areas” should be permanently protected, thus freeing up the remainder for development. It also recommends accelerating review of a proposed natural gas pipeline from Alaska to the lower 48.

The wilderness group noted the Interior Department emphasis, not just on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, but on opening up all public lands, with a particular interest in the Rocky Mountain Overthrust area.

The DOI initiative is “a campaign to undermine the nation’s environmental laws,” Bill Meadows, Wilderness Society president, said in a news conference Thursday. It is “completely lacking in any mention of energy efficiency” or conservation. Meadows reiterated his group’s contention that the resources underlying protected federal lands are just a fraction of what’s readily available in unprotected areas. The Wilderness Society and other environmental groups already are lobbying Congress heavily against diluting environmental protections. The group made the Interior Department’s March 12 draft of proposed actions available on its web site.

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