Just before Christmas with Congress in recess and the public on holiday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar issued Secretarial Order 3310 that puts the creation of de facto wilderness areas back in the Bureau of Land Management’s preservation tool kit.
Environmentalists love it; landowners and resource providers not so much.
What is particularly egregious about Salazar’s order is that it enables the BLM to create wilderness-like areas without the consent of Congress. In the long run it will adversely impact resource development, recreation, travel and grazing on BLM land.
Only Congress can designate wilderness but Salazar took some dubious administrative liberties and gave the BLM the authority to: (1) identify lands with wilderness qualities; (2) designate those areas as Wild Lands; and (3) manage the designated areas to protect their wilderness characteristics.
The Congressional Western Caucus was spot on when they declared Salazar’s order an “end around” congressional approval of wilderness areas.
Salazar attempts to deflect that criticism by pointing out that his order allows certain multiple uses to go forward if it is determined that such uses are appropriate even though the wilderness non-impairment standard might be compromised.
Sounds good, but you can bet any land use proposal on designated Wild Lands will be smothered in bureaucratic red tape and litigation.
The Interior order reversed the policy President George W. Bush put in place that essentially barred the BLM from conducting wilderness inventories. The new order requires the BLM to inventory lands for wilderness characteristics in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act prior to authorizing any activity on those lands.
Over the years, BLM created 570 Wilderness Study Areas totaling 13 million acres. Because WSA’s must meet the non-impairment wilderness standard, these areas became de facto wilderness — hence the Bush era policy to stop that activity.
Salazar’s new policy will not likely revive the use of WSA’s because the non-impairment rule kicks in and his order, in theory, gives the BLM more latitude to determine what can happen on those lands. Nonetheless, designated Wild Lands and existing WSA’s are de facto wilderness areas that await Congressional decision on permanent Wilderness status.
The Wild Lands order is just another initiative coming out of Washington that complements a host of other land preservation methodologies put on the books in the past two years.
First, the National Landscape Conservation System was developed that brought under one roof the management of specially designated lands such as monuments, wild and scenic rivers, wilderness areas, etc. The NLCS was administratively created in 2000 by former Interior Secretary Babbitt and became formally recognized when Congress passed the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009. Since then, Salazar has established the NLCS as a new directorate within the BLM.
Next, America’s Great Outdoors and the Treasured Landscapes initiatives were trotted out, all with rave reviews from the environmental community. These initiatives are like search engines looking for opportunities to preserve landscapes.
Then, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under Salazar launched the Landscape Conservation Cooperative initiative touted to be a partnership of private and government organizations working to protect America’s land resources. This is an undertaking with incredible scope and is being fueled in part by Federal climate change dollars.
The ponderous nature of all these initiatives is unsettling. The BLM manages approximately 264 million acres of land and administers 700 million acres of subsurface minerals. The NLCS presently has 27 million acres under its preservation mantra and the Treasured Landscape initiative will examine some 130 million acres for consideration as “treasured” lands. The LCC proposes to protect millions of acres of private and federal lands, including 2 million acres of migratory bird habitat across the Dakotas and parts of Montana. The new Wild Lands policy will precipitate the review of 220 million acres for wilderness qualities.
The biggest criticism is that these initiatives were concocted in Washington with the shades pulled. If this is government of, by and for the people, then it seems people on the receiving end of these onerous land management initiatives have been left out. The opportunity for public participation in implementing these initiatives is of little consolation because government always holds the trump cards.
Preserving landscapes in the West has become a Washington obsession and it does not bode well for people that depend on the land for a living.
(Ron Poertner is the Secretary of Missouri River Stewards.)