DENVER -- The Obama administration plans to reverse a Bush-era policy and make millions of undeveloped acres, including some in Alaska, again eligible for federal wilderness protection, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Thursday.
The agency will replace the 2003 policy adopted under then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton. That policy — derided by some as the “No More Wilderness” policy — stated that new areas could not be recommended for wilderness protection by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and it opened millions of acres to potential commercial development.
That policy “frankly never should have happened and was wrong in the first place,” Salazar said Thursday.
Environmental activists have been pushing for the Obama administration to restore protections for potential wilderness areas.
Salazar said the agency will review some 220 million acres of BLM land that are not under wilderness protection to see which should be given a new “Wild Lands” designation — a new first step for land awaiting a wilderness decision.
The Interior Department said “Wild Lands” is a new designation, separate from “wilderness areas,” which Congress designates and only Congress can change, and “wilderness study areas,” which are protected while Congress considers whether to designate them as wilderness areas.
How Wild Lands are managed, and whether to redesignated them as something else, will be decided by the Interior Department, not Congress, the department said.
The policy has specific application to Alaska.
Once the new policy becomes final, BLM land in Alaska no longer will be exempt from further wilderness studies, as has been the case since 2003.
The Interior Department specifically said Thursday that parts of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska west of the North Slope oil fields may be designated as Wild Lands.
Separately, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an arm of the Interior Department, is studying whether to recommend that Congress designate the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska as wilderness. Part of the refuge already is designated as wilderness, but not the coastal plain, which is believed to hold billions of barrels of oil. The coastal plain is closed to oil development, and designating it a wilderness would make it harder to lift the development embargo, an action Alaska leaders have advocated for decades.
Congressional Republicans pounced on the Wild Lands announcement as an attempt by the Obama administration to close land to development without congressional approval.
“This backdoor approach is intended to circumvent both the people who will be directly affected and Congress,” said Washington Rep. Doc Hastings, a Republican tapped to lead the House Natural Resources Committee when the GOP takes control of the House in January.
The Congressional Western Caucus, an all-Republican group, also blasted the decision. “This is little more than an early Christmas present to the far left extremists who oppose the multiple use of our nation’s public lands,” Utah Rep. Rob Bishop said in a statement.
Alaska Rep. Don Young said he was disgusted by Salazar’s decision.
“This is yet another example of overreaching by the federal government and of the administration detouring around Congress to get what they want,” Young said. “Managing lands as if they were wilderness ignores BLM’s multiple-use mandate. The extreme environmentalist groups couldn’t get their wilderness bills past Congress and so now they are circumventing this country’s legislative body and having the agencies do their dirty work. It’s disgraceful,” he said.
“I will do everything in my power to stop this overreaching by the Administration and to work with the state of Alaska to keep the governments hands off our lands,” Young said.
BLM Director Bob Abbey said it hasn’t been decided how many acres are expected to be designated as “Wild Lands” and whether those acres will be off-limits to motorized recreation or commercial development while under congressional review. It’s also unclear whether there will be a time limit on how long acres can be managed as “Wild Lands” before a decision is made on their future.
The BLM has six months to submit a plan for those new wilderness evaluations.
These Wild Lands would be separate from Wilderness Study Areas that must be authorized by Congress. Wild Lands can be designated by the BLM after a public planning process and would be managed with protective measures detailed in a land use plan.
Ranchers, oil men and others have been suspicious of federal plans to lock up land in the West, worrying that taking the BLM land out of production would kill rural economies that rely on ranchers and the oil and gas business.
Their suspicions have been heightened since memos leaked in February revealed the Obama administration was considering 14 sites in nine states for possible presidential monument declarations.
That included 2.5 million acres of northeastern Montana prairie land proposed as a possible bison range, along with sites in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, California, Nevada, Arizona, Oregon and Washington.
The 2003 policy was an out-of-court deal struck between Norton and then-Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt to remove protections for some 2.6 million acres of public land in that state.
The policy allowed drilling, mining and other commercial uses on land under consideration as wilderness areas.
Salazar’s reversal doesn’t affect about 8.7 million acres already designated as wilderness areas.
Conservationists praised the reversal, though there has been grumbling that it took the Obama administration nearly two years to overturn the Bush-era policy.
“Washington D.C. always takes longer than you want, but we’re glad we’ve gotten here,” said Suzanne Jones, regional director for The Wilderness Society.
The Anchorage Daily News/adn.com contributed to this story.