New Wild Lands Policy Offers Hope to Unprotected Wilderness Quality Lands

Photo by Erik Molvar. Stunning Adobe Town in WY has long been under threat, but should be protected as Wild Lands.

This year Christmas came a little early for all Americans who treasure our public lands, when Interior Secretary Ken Salazar delivered a new policy for protecting wilderness-quality areas managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The Secretarial Order effectively puts an end to the second class status of wilderness on our public lands that was ushered in by the Bush administration’s “no more wilderness” policy. Under Bush, there was a reversal of long standing wilderness protections and instead his administration instated a policy in which the BLM abdicated its authority to designate wilderness study areas. Administrative protections for lands with wilderness characteristics, such as wilderness study areas, are necessary to prevent damaging uses like oil and gas drilling and off-road vehicle abuse until Congress can permanently protect those areas as Wilderness.

The Order requires the BLM to keep a current inventory of lands with wilderness characteristics, and consider protecting those lands when making management decisions. When revising land use plans, the agency will now determine which lands with wilderness characteristics warrant protection and should designate those areas as “Wild Lands.” Additionally, until plans are completed, the BLM cannot authorize projects such as oil and gas development in areas that may possess wilderness characteristics until the agency conducts a new inventory. The Order provides for the BLM to still decide not to protect wilderness values either as Wild Lands or from other damaging uses, so we hope that the BLM’s guidance implementing the Order will ensure that those decisions must meet a high bar and that the Order’s stated focus on actually protecting our wild lands will be fulfilled.

In announcing the policy from REI’s flagship store in Denver, Colorado, BLM Director Bob Abbey said, “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 lands we oversee as part of our multiple use mission.”

Although we still hope to see the agency restore its policy of designating wilderness study areas, this is an important action that, properly implemented, should lead to protecting millions of acres of wilderness-quality lands across the West. The new policy orders that “the BLM should develop recommendations, with public involvement, regarding possible Congressional designation of lands into the National Wilderness Preservation System.” We hope the agency will seize on this mandate and once again propose wild lands to be designated Wilderness. Without meaningful action by the BLM, we may lose forever our treasured but unprotected spectacular western landscapes.