State and local officials are concerned that the wilderness decision may impact energy development in the region.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's announcement that the Bureau of Land Management will manage some Utah lands as wilderness before Congress officially designates them as such has provoked state and local opposition.
"I am proud to sign a secretarial order that restores protections for the wild lands that the Bureau of Land Management oversees on behalf of the American people," Salazar said in an announcement of the policy as he spoke in Denver, Colo. last Thursday. In effect, the Interior Department is basically abandoning the Bush-era policy that kept the Bureau of Land Management from aggressively inventorying land it controls and holding it as Wilderness Study Areas until Congress acts upon each designated area.
While Congress is the only body that can make land belonging to the federal government wilderness, the move allows BLM field managers to go ahead and protect areas they consider wilderness without any congressional action. The action that was taken is now known as Secretarial Order 3310.
"The new wild lands policy affirms the BLM's authorities under the law and our responsibility to the American people to protect the wilderness characteristics of the land we oversee as part of our multiple use mission," said BLM Director Bob Abbey after the announcement of the change.
Many state and local officials were not happy with the announcement, particularly with the way it was issued.
The announcement took place as the holiday break began in Washington D.C. with Congress adjourning for this year. A new Congress with much more conservative clout will come into power in January and it is expected that the move will rile up some of the incoming members as well as those that have supported the former Interior Secretary Gale Norton's plan that kept the BLM from designating areas wilderness since 2003.
"The timing of this decision is suspect, coming the day before Christmas Eve," Utah Governor Gary Herbert said later that day. "State officials were not notified of the department's intent, nor were we offered an opportunity to discuss it with Interior officials beforehand, which strikes me as political posturing."
The Norton policy has allowed drilling for oil and gas, mineral extraction as well as other commercial uses on land that could possibly be designated wilderness in the future. This new policy will not use Wilderness Study Areas as the term for land classified as having wilderness characteristics that used previous to the Norton ban, but instead will call areas that the BLM denotes as wilderness "wild lands."
"This decision may unintentionally damage all of the good will that we have worked so hard to build between the state, local governments, the environmental community and federal officials," stated Herbert.
Salazar said that the the wild lands proposals will utilize a public process before they are designated such by the BLM.
According to the Interior Department the designation can be made and then modified later through a public process. Those lands designated such can also later be designated as wilderness by Congress should it wish to do so.
This action has a direct effect on Utah, which has millions of acres under BLM administration. Many Utahns are suspicious of any move the federal government makes when it comes to land designations by it agencies. Many claim allowing an agency to proclaim a designation plays right into the hands of radical environmentalists.
The governor also had a conversation about the announcement with Abbey over the phone on Thursday. He said that he had discussed Abbey's coming to Utah to discuss the intended and possible unintended consequences of the decision.
"We have tried to have a new era of cooperation with Interior, and I'm afraid these actions may hurt those attempts," said Herbert. "The ironic fallout of this decision is that it could stifle our ability to resolve wilderness issues through cooperation and compromise, like we saw in Washington County and are beginning to see throughout the state."
On Monday morning the Sun Advocate contacted Carbon County Commissioner Mike Milovich who has been involved with a lot of the federal land issues over the years.
"It looks to me that we have the Clinton administration all over again," he said referring to the fact that then President Bill Clinton stood just outside Utah's borders at the Grand Canyon to announce the Escalate Grand Staircase National Monument executive order in the 1990s. "When Salazar talks about involving locals in the decision to do this he is lying through his teeth. No one knew this was going to be announced. We didn't know a thing."
Milovich also said he and others would be meeting with other counties and some associations to see what they can do about this.
"We will fight it but it will take a lot of resources," he stated. "We'll just have to see what transpires and how we can combat this order."
The secretarial order does not change the management of existing Wilderness Study Areas pending before Congress or congressionally designated units of the National Wilderness Preservation System. The BLM may also still develop recommendations regarding possible Congressional designation of lands into the National Wilderness Preservation System.
Utah currently has three million acres of wilderness study areas, and wilderness was recently designated in Washington County after a lengthy effort involving residents, local government and environmental groups. According to the governor's office similar efforts are underway in San Juan, Emery, Piute and Beaver Counties.