WASHINGTON — Republican governors and members of Congress vowed Tuesday to fight an Obama administration plan to make millions of acres of undeveloped land in the West eligible for federal wilderness protection.
The GOP officials said the plan would circumvent Congress's authority and could be used to declare a vast swath of public land off-limits to oil-and-gas drilling.
Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., said the policy threatens the economy in rural Western states and accused the Obama administration of waging a "war on the West."
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter called the plan "a drastic change in public policy for public lands that was done without public input." He called on Congress to "take back its authority" and block the new policy.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, appearing with Otter at a hearing before the House Natural Resources Committee, called on the GOP-led panel to "help us right a very real and very damaging wrong."
Herbert said a December order by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was harming rural communities throughout Utah whose economies rely on use of public lands.
"This order hinders rural economic development and hurts key funding sources for Utah's school children," Herbert said, noting that royalties from mineral development are a primary founding sources for Utah schools.
Salazar announced plans in December to reverse a Bush-era policy and make millions of acres of public land again eligible for wilderness protection. The so-called wild lands plan replaces a 2003 policy – dubbed by critics as "No More Wilderness – that opened Western lands to commercial development.
A spokeswoman for Salazar called the new policy a common-sense solution that will help the agency better manage public lands, waters and wildlife.
"As a Westerner himself, Secretary Salazar believes that the wild lands policy is a straightforward, practical approach that restores balance to the management of public lands," spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff said.
The policy by itself does not itself create any wild lands designation, nor does it require that any particular lands be protected, said Bob Abbey, director of the Bureau of Land Management.
Designation as wild land can only be made after public comments and review and does not necessarily prohibit motor vehicle use or the staking of new mining claims, Abbey said.
The wild lands policy "provides local communities and the public with a strong voice in the decisions affecting the nation's public lands," he told the committee.
In an interview, Abbey said planning has already begun, and designation of the first wild lands could occur as soon as this summer in Idaho, Wyoming and Alaska. He denied that the plan is unpopular in the West, citing letters of support from recreation and conservation groups and the outdoor industry.
"I think you're hearing some rhetoric" from Western lawmakers, but not grassroots opposition, Abbey said.
A group of recreation business owners and outfitters from six Western states said in a letter to Congress this week that conservation of public lands is good business.
"Rural counties with wilderness or other protected federal lands experience greater economic and population growth than those without wilderness," the letter said, citing research by the Colorado-based Outdoor Industry Association.
The letter was signed by more than 50 business owners in New Mexico, Utah, Montana, Colorado, Wyoming and Oregon.