Denver – In a much anticipated announcement, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar issued a Secretarial Order today that will restore protection for millions of acres of wilderness-quality lands across the West, acknowledging the important role of wilderness in the multiple uses of our public lands.
The Wilderness Society’s President, William H. Meadows, along with bipartisan conservation partners across the West, hailed the Interior Department’s restoration of a policy that had been in place for decades until it was dismantled by the Bush administration.
“Secretary Ken Salazar’s policy on wilderness should assure that our nation’s wild but unprotected public lands will receive the careful stewardship they deserve,” said Meadows. “Under a policy previously adopted by former Interior Secretary Gale Norton, the BLM was encouraged to open up vast acreages of wilderness-quality lands to oil and gas leasing and drilling, off-road vehicle use and other development. The protection of ecological, wildlife, and cultural values took a back seat to oil and gas development and other extraction activities.”
In 2003, the Bush administration entered into a poorly conceived settlement agreement with the State of Utah, in which the Interior Department’s abandoned its well-established authority to protect the wilderness character of spectacular landscapes throughout the West by designating them as wilderness study areas (WSAs). This Bush-era policy put places like Utah’s Red Rock Canyons, New Mexico’s Otero Mesa, Oregon’s Steens Mountain, Colorado’s Roan Plateau, Arizona’s Sand Tank Mountains, and Wyoming’s Adobe Town at risk from irresponsible oil and gas drilling and off-road vehicle abuse.
“There are many places across the West that we value for reasons beyond the minerals that may lie beneath the surface,” said Steve Bonowski, a long-time volunteer with the Colorado Mountain Club and a member of Republicans for Environmental Protection. “The rugged canyons of South Shale Ridge in Colorado, with their vivid purples, oranges, and reds, deserve wilderness protection. We need to safeguard these lands so that Americans can experience the splendor of unspoiled nature.”
The Order provides direction for identifying and protecting our fragile wilderness-quality lands. A team of experienced BLM and National Park Service employees found that there has been widespread confusion about how, and even whether, the BLM should be evaluating and managing public lands that have wilderness values following the Norton–Leavitt settlement in Utah. This led the team to recommend that BLM adopt a consistent policy for managing lands with wilderness characteristics in its report to Secretary Salazar. (The report can be found at http://www.doi.gov/documents/BLM_Utah77LeaseParcelReport.pdf).
“This policy recognizes the BLM’s statutory obligation to protect the natural qualities of the lands in its stewardship, and gives stakeholders their rightful place in the process,” said Meadows. “We look forward to working with the BLM to assure that the millions of acres of public lands deserving wilderness designation are properly cared for until Congress acts to permanently protect them.”
“For decades, the Bureau of Land Management has had the mission of complementing Congress’s efforts to honor the Wilderness Act’s mandate of designating areas as wilderness,” said David Getches, Dean and Raphael J. Moses Professor of Natural Resources Law at the University of Colorado Law School. “The tandem obligations of BLM and Congress have been supported by a bipartisan tradition of protecting lands Americans cherish for future use by their children and grandchildren. The Secretary’s actions recognize the need to fulfill those obligations and continue that tradition.”
Wilderness-quality lands are valuable for recreation, such as hunting, hiking, camping, fishing, and birdwatching, provide clean water and healthy ecosystems for fish and wildlife, and are repositories for the history of ancient cultures. Per the Order, the BLM must now inventory its lands for wilderness qualities and, when the BLM finds such lands, the BLM should manage them to protect their wilderness qualities from uses that could harm them.
“Hunting on our protected public lands is an experience like no other, said John Cornell, campaign coordinator with the New Mexico Wildlife Federation. “In places like the wide-open grasslands of Otero Mesa of New Mexico you feel a spiritual connection to not just the land, but the wildlife. Sportsmen know that it's all about quality habitat and with guidance like the Secretarial Order handed down today we can continue to enjoy the best hunting in wild and pristine landscapes.”
Steve Bonowski, Republicans for Environmental Protection, (303) 914-8255
John Cornell, New Mexico Wildlife Federation, (575) 740-1759