Denver and the west

Interior reverses Bush-era wilderness policy

By Kevin Vaughan
The Denver Post
Posted: 12/24/2010 01:00:00 AM MST
Updated: 12/24/2010 09:09:37 AM MST

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar watches geese fly overhead Thursday outside REI’s flagship Denver store as BLM Director Bob Abbey speaks about a new policy that will allow the agency to protect pristine areas as “wild lands.” (AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post)

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Thursday gave the Bureau of Land Management the power to designate tens of millions of acres as “wild lands” — a new categorization that could dramatically alter future decisions on everything from mining and drilling to off-roading.

Salazar, who announced his order in Denver’s Central Platte Valley, said the new policy will supersede a 2003 out-of-court settlement that came to be known as “no more wilderness.” Agreed to by then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton, that settlement removed federal protections on 2.6 million acres of public land in Utah, and the resulting policy left millions of other backcountry acres vulnerable to development, Salazar said.

“That is simply unacceptable,” Salazar said, flanked outside the REI flagship store in Denver by members of his staff, conservationists and even an executive from a leading outdoor-gear manufacturer.

Salazar insisted his new policy, which should be in place within 60 days, does not mean that any of the 245 million acres controlled by the BLM land will be “locked up” and barred from development. Instead, he said, the “wilderness characteristics” of each parcel will be among the factors considered as the federal government determines the best use of a particular piece of land.

He said it would protect pristine wildlands while allowing a “common sense” approach to decisions on such matters as oil and gas drilling.

“There will be oil and gas that will continue to be developed,” Salazar said.

He and supporters framed the argument in simple terms: as a policy needed to protect backcountry areas and to consider their unique wilderness characteristics as land-use plans are formulated.

“These landscapes are our Sistine Chapel, our Mona Lisa, our David,” said Peter Metcalf, head of Black Diamond Equipment.

He and others touted the policy as a way to preserve jobs in hunting, fishing, hiking and climbing.

Whit Fosburgh, head of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said 13 million Americans hunt and 33 million fish, and the result is 900,000 jobs.

“These are jobs that are here forever,” Fosburgh said.

Representatives of the oil and gas industry and the Colorado Oil & Gas Association had no immediate comment on the new order and did not return phone calls seeking reaction. However, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, head of the Congressional Western Caucus, denounced the action as “little more than an early Christmas present to the far left extremists who oppose the multiple use of our nation’s public lands.”

Salazar’s order will not create new wilderness areas — a designation that can be approved or changed only by Congress under the 1964 Wilderness Act. The new policy also will not affect the management of lands being considered for wilderness designation.

Instead, it will call for the BLM to update its existing inventory of federal land and designate areas that have “wilderness characteristics” as “wild lands.”

The Wilderness Act outlines the specific characteristics that can be considered, including the size of an area, opportunities for solitude, and ecological or geological features.

Salazar said the BLM can institute the new policy under existing federal law.

The designation of a particular area as a “wild land” would mean that the wilderness considerations would be “on the same platform” as other factors when decisions are made about what uses to allow, Salazar said.

“The bottom line is land with wilderness characteristics will have a significant place at the table,” Salazar said.

Kevin Vaughan: 303-954-5019 or

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