New hope for western wild lands: But will protections be strong enough?

Unique and previously unprotected places like New Mexico’s Otero Mesa grasslands, Wyoming’s Adobe Town badlands and Utah’s red rock canyons have a new chance at receiving protections they need and deserve.

After years of abusive Bush-era policies the Obama administration has announced a new policy that, if implemented correctly, could restore balance to multiple land-use principles on the iconic western lands that have been offered on platter to oil and gas companies, irresponsible off-road vehicle users, and other development interests in recent years.

The Obama policy, announced at the end of December by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, essentially negates a controversial 2003 Bush-era policy, known as the “No More Wilderness” policy, that took away the Bureau of Land Management’s ability to recommend some of its most primitive and unique lands for protection as federally designated Wilderness and protect those lands until Congress could act to include them in the Wilderness Preservation System. Wilderness designation within the system affords some of our most beloved lands the nation’s highest level of protection.

Prior to 2003, the BLM was able to recommend areas as Wilderness Study Areas, which is a first step toward Congressional designation as Wilderness. But since the 2003 No More Wilderness policy took that away, millions of acres of spectacular western lands have been vulnerable. Some have been leased for oil and gas drilling, while others are now riddled with roads and damaging two-tracks. Many of these damaged lands are areas that the BLM had formerly found to have wilderness characteristics, and thus worthy of consideration within the National Wilderness Preservation System.

Thanks to the new Obama administration policy, beloved places now have a chance at finally receiving the protections they need. A few such places are:

  • Spectacular red rock canyon country in Utah.
  • Wyoming’s amazing badlands at Adobe Town.
  • Vital wildlife habitat within the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.
  • Colorado’s South Shale Ridge, sometimes called Colorado’s Bryce Canyon, a fascinating land of twisting arroyos and white and gray hoodoos.
  • New Mexico’s Otero Mesa, a vast area in Southern New Mexico that is the most extensive Chihuahuan grassland in the United States.

Making Wild Lands designation meaningful for the places we cherish

Adobe Town in Wyoming. Courtesy Biodiversity Conservation Alliance.The new policy does not actually allow the BLM to recommend Wilderness Study Areas as the agency used to do before 2003, but it does allow — and require — that the BLM consider the protection of lands with wilderness characteristics under a new protective category called ‘Wild Lands’. The BLM now must keep an inventory of lands with wilderness characteristics and consider protecting those lands when making management decisions.

This is a strong step forward, but the designation ‘Wild Lands’, unlike Wilderness designation, has no clear meaning yet. It will be up to the BLM to decide now to implement the ‘Wild Lands’ designation, and then how proactively to use the ‘Wild Lands’ protection.

Most important to note is that the policy allows the BLM to decide NOT to protect wilderness values either as Wild Lands or from damaging uses, in general. And this is why we are working to ensure the new policy is proactive about protections.

Americans who love their western lands can help by urging the BLM to be pro-active about using the policy to inventory and protect unique places. Click here to help us if you haven’t taken action on this issue already.

We can also push the BLM to re-evaluate dozens of land use plans made prior to the new policy to ensure that wildlands that were left out in the cold have a chance to be protected now — as opposed to waiting for the lifespan of those plans to expire, which will take 15 and even 20 years in some cases.

For example, the BLM should re-evaluate its resource management plan for an area of southwest Wyoming (the Rawlins resource management plan), in which it refused to close proposed wilderness at Wyoming's Adobe Town to oil and gas drilling. It should also take a serious look at its plan for lands in northwest Arizona, or the Arizona Strip Management Plan. These plans designated miles and miles of motorized use in proposed wilderness areas like the Pakoon area of the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, a remarkable intersection of four different floristic provinces and habitat for threatened or endangered species, including the desert tortoise.

American voices can have an impact on this issue as the BLM is still creating guidance for the policy, which it has 60 days to produce. We are pushing the agency to issue strong guidance by recommending clear direction that the agency be proactive about identifying and protecting wilderness characteristics, as well as designating Wild Lands, including through re-evaluating land use plans that were previously decided under the No More Wilderness policy.

This is an opportunity to right the wrongs of the past and ensure that the lands that we cherish and recreate on remain intact for future generations. Click here to help.

Otero Mesa rock art in New Mexico. Photo by Juli Slivka.
Adobe Town in Wyoming. Courtesy Biodiversity Conservation Alliance.