Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Thursday that his department is reversing a Bush-era ban on the designation of federal wilderness sites. The announcement drew both criticism and praise.
“Wise stewardship isn't just the right thing to do, it's good for business, and it's good for jobs,” Salazar said in prepared remarks delivered in Denver. “So today, we are charting a new course for the protection of America's wild lands that recognizes just how important they are to the American people and to the local communities whose economies depend on the great outdoors.”
The announcement drew a quick response from Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont.
“The Obama administration just left a giant Christmas present under the tree of the radical environmentalists who got him elected, and Western states like Montana are going to get stuck paying for it,” Rehberg said in a release Thursday. “From ObamaCare to corporate bailouts, this is yet another example of the status quo in Washington abusing its power and circumventing the will of the public.”
The idea of federal land designation has been a hot topic in Montana since a leaked planning memo from the Interior Department listed 16 areas as potential national monuments, including 2.5 million acres in north-central Montana the memo said was a potential prairie monument.
Rehberg was a vocal critic of the document and staunch opponent of new monument and wilderness designations.
Salazar and Bureau of Land Management Director Bob Abbey have said the memo was for planning purposes only. Abbey, in a meeting held in Malta in September, told a crowd of some 2,000 people that no plans were in place to create such a Montana monument — a statement met with suspicion by many in the crowd.
Kate Downen, communications director for Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said Baucus understands how the topic may be a source of contention, and that he “firmly believes the process must be transparent and responsive to widespread local input — not directives from bureacrats in Washington, D.C.”
Downen said Baucus met with more than 100 people in Malta over the summer, people who expressed their fears over land designations happening “behind closed doors.”
“Max has spoken out very clearly on the topic, saying he will oppose any effort to create a national monument in Montana if it doesn’t have the support of Montanans,” she said. “He is carefully reviewing whether this specific order is right for Montana.
Comments from Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., were not available by deadline this morning.
Salazar said Thursday the change in wilderness planning reverses a 2003 out-of-court settlement between Bush’s secretary of the interior, Gale Norton, the state of Utah and other parties which revoked BLM’s wilderness management policies.
The Bush-era policy that no new areas could be designated for wilderness protection by BLM "frankly never should have happened and was wrong in the first place," Salazar said.
Other congressional Republicans also blasted the announcement as an attempt to avoid needing congressional approval.
“This backdoor approach is intended to circumvent both the people who will be directly affected and Congress," said Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash.
Salazar said the process will include public involvement in the potential designation of “Wild Lands,” which potentially could be given permanent protection through designations by Congress.
In his remarks, Salazar said the Wild Lands designations would not lock up land, because the status could be changed through new actions. He also said the policy would not affect any land not managed by the BLM, and would not affect land management of existing Wilderness Study Areas pending before Congress or congressionally designated Wilderness Areas.
The order establishing the policy says BLM will create an inventory of land it manages to identify possible Wild Lands and submit a report within six months.
National Environmental Policy Act analysis would be used to determine the impacts of proposed projects in Wild Lands. Some policies could be approved even if they would impair the wilderness nature of the area if it is appropriate and consistent with applicable laws and management considerations including the exercise of existing rights, the order says.
(Information from The Associated Press was used in this article.)