WASHINGTON — Under pressure from Congress, the Obama administration is backing away from a plan to make millions of acres of undeveloped land in the West eligible for federal wilderness protection.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a memo Wednesday that his agency will not designate any of those public lands as "wild lands." Instead Salazar said officials will work with members of Congress to develop recommendations for managing millions of acres of undeveloped land in the West.
"The protection of America's wilderness for hunting, fishing and backcountry recreation should be a unifying issue that mobilizes us to a common purpose," Salazar said. "We will focus our effort on building consensus around locally supported initiatives."
Salazar's decision reverses an order issued in December to restore eligibility for wilderness protection to millions of acres of public lands. That policy overturned a Bush-era approach that opened some Western lands to commercial development.
A budget deal approved by Congress prevented the Interior Department from spending money to implement the wilderness policy. GOP lawmakers complained that the plan would circumvent Congress' authority and could be used to declare a vast swath of public land off-limits to oil-and-gas drilling.
Republican governors in Utah, Alaska and Wyoming, filed suit to block the plan, saying it would hurt their state's economies by making federal lands unavailable for mineral production and other uses.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, hailed Salazar's reversal of what he called a "misguided" policy that would have harmed Utah's economy.
"Arbitrarily restricting citizens' use of our public lands and obstructing the development of domestic energy on those lands is the wrong thing to do, especially during an economic recession and without any input from Congress or local officials," Hatch said.
William Meadows, president of The Wilderness Society, said the decision ignores the Bureau of Land Management's obligation to protect wilderness values.
"Without strong and decisive action from the Department of Interior, wilderness will not be given the protection it is due, putting millions of acres of public lands at risk," Meadows said.
Tim Mahoney, policy director of the Pew Environment Group's Campaign for America's Wilderness, said he hoped Salazar's announcement was just a temporary retreat.
"We don't want this to become a permanent approach" to wilderness protection, Mahoney said, adding that it was up to environmental groups and their supporters in Congress to convince Salazar to restore his earlier order.
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, a Republican who had traveled to Washington to testify against the wild lands policy, said he was grateful that Salazar – a fellow Westerner – was "stepping back to reconsider the implications of his wild lands policy."
As chairman of the Western Governors' Association, Otter said he also was grateful that Salazar was seeking input from governors and local land users to find a path forward. "I'm going to keep working to make sure everyone understands the economic consequences to our communities and our state of advancing a top-down wilderness agenda," he said.
The Wyoming Outdoor Council, an environmental group, called for the Obama administration to "stand up to the energy lobby" and continue the wild lands policy.
"Frankly, we'd like to see President Obama show a little more determination here," said Bruce Pendery, the group's program director. "The fact is Wyoming hunters would benefit from a new wild lands inventory on (federal) lands in this state."
Bob Abbey, director of the land management bureau, said the December directive would not have required protection for any particular areas. Designation as wild land could only be made after public comments and review and would not necessarily prohibit motor vehicle use or the staking of new mining claims, Abbey said.
The measure blocking implementation of the wild lands policy was included in a budget bill for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30.
Matthew Daly can be reached at http://twitter.com/MatthewDalyWDC