Reminiscent of the Clinton Administration’s War on the West, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar recently signed a secretarial order authorizing the Bureau of Land Management to place severe restrictions on public land use in 11 western states and Alaska.
Salazar’s order bypasses congressional oversight, directs BLM state officials to evaluate public lands with “wilderness characteristics,” and create a new public lands category called “Wild Lands.” According to a press release, “Americans love the wild places where they hunt, fish, hike and get away from it all. . . This policy ensures that the lands of the American public are protected for current and future generations to come.”
This policy is troubling on many fronts. Chief among them is the Department of Interior (DOI) provides no working definition of what “Wild Lands” are, except “appropriate areas with wilderness characteristics.” Whereas wilderness areas have a fairly explicit definition including phrases like “untrammeled by man,” and “generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.”
In addition, the process completely bypasses the authority of Congress, which is required in the creation of wilderness areas to provide some level of accountability to the people who actually live nearby. This new policy leaves designation of Wild Lands, whatever that means, up to BLM employees. In its press release, DOI promises the opportunity for public input. However, many of us remember what has happened in the past when federal agencies promised us they would listen to our concerns. We trust they will listen, but what we can most certainly expect is that public comment from these 11 western states will largely be ignored and overridden by the concerns of environmental groups and others with romantic notions of the American West – mainly people with no economic ties to the region.
To prove this point let’s take a look back at recent history. Despite significant opposition from Utah residents, then President Bill Clinton used his authority under the Antiquities Act in 1996 to create the 1.9 million acre Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. Earlier that year, despite significant public opposition from affected residents, Clinton and his Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt gave Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming the dubious gift of wolf reintroduction.
Overall, Idaho currently has 33 million acres being managed by federal agencies. At present, just over 4 million acres in Idaho are designated wilderness areas with another three million acres in Wilderness Study Areas, which are essentially de facto wilderness areas. The BLM manages 12 million acres in Idaho.
Further restrictions on public lands will harm rural communities where people depend on grazing, mining, logging and other activities that create commerce in rural areas. It makes us wonder if that is the point of this secretarial order. For the past two years the Obama Administration has mostly stayed away from western land management issues. We know there is a lot of pressure from people in other states to preserve the wide open spaces left in America. Most of those people don’t have any idea what it’s like to live in a state that is mostly owned by the federal government. We hope this isn’t an indication that another War on the West is beginning.