Will President Obama Finally Protect America's Last Remnants of Wilderness?

02/02/2011 03:47 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

There have recently been a flurry of news reports on the Obama administration's new "wild lands" policy, but these reports failed to fully explain how this policy is merely the latest move in a 35-year-long battle over the few remaining wilderness areas in the US. These pristine areas are already owned by the public, so preserving them for future generations should be a no-brainer. Unfortunately, it is not yet clear that the Obama administration is serious about protecting them.

It's frustrating to be a public lands advocate, for at least three reasons.

The first reason: If there were a referendum on our issues, we would win easily and overwhelmingly. What are our issues? The main one is preserving the few public lands which remain in a relatively pristine state. That's about 8% of the lower 48 states. Less than half of that 8% is already protected as officially designated wilderness or national parks. The remaining majority of that land is, on average, just as spectacular as the existing parks and wilderness areas. It is also currently open to logging, mining, drilling and off-road vehicle mayhem.

If this seems wrong to you, you are not alone. Poll after poll shows that most Americans think it would be wise and prudent to leave some small portion (e.g., 8%) of our country in its natural condition for future generations to enjoy. We live in a democracy, most people want these lands preserved, and the lands are already owned by the public. The rest should be easy, right? Unfortunately, wrong. The views held by extractive industry executives and dirt-bike riders typically carry more weight with the federal officials in charge of managing these lands. As so often happens, highly motivated and well-funded interest groups outmaneuver the majority. As I said, frustrating.

The second reason: In theory, this was all settled in favor of wilderness 35 years ago. In 1976 Congress passed the Federal Land Policy Management Act (FLPMA), which, among many other things, directed federal land managers (the imaginatively named Bureau of Land Management, or BLM) to preserve all remaining natural areas until Congress had a chance to decide which of those areas should be preserved permanently as officially designated wilderness. These interim wilderness areas are called Wilderness Study Areas, or WSAs.

Putting these three new acronyms together: Congress, via FLPMA, directed the BLM to manage the few remaining natural areas on public lands as WSAs, until Congress had a chance to make a permanent decision as to whether they should be preserved in their natural state or sacrificed to mining, drilling etc. A wise and prudent policy -- congratulations to the Congress of 1975-76.

Unfortunately, there were two catches.

The first catch was that Congress didn't specify which areas were to be WSAs; instead they directed the BLM to do an inventory of all lands which were of wilderness quality and designate those lands as WSAs. The BLM was not supposed to make trade-offs between natural values and potential for extraction; that was to be Congress's job, in the future. The BLM was simply charged with making a factual determination about naturalness. All options were to be kept open, including the permanent wilderness option. Of course, it was in the interest of the drilling and mining crowd to see that BLM found as few WSAs as possible. Fewer WSAs would mean fewer restrictions on drilling, mining etc.

The second catch was that the original inventory for WSAs was completed during the Reagan administration. Strangely enough, Reagan's public land managers, many of whom were former lobbyists for extractive industries, found very few WSAs indeed. It is now very well documented that millions upon millions of acres which clearly and obviously qualified as wilderness were deliberately overlooked by the Reagan-era BLM. (In the late 1990's the BLM itself admitted that millions of acres had been improperly omitted.) This violation of the public trust continues to have severe repercussions for public lands. Congress said in 1976 that there should be no additional loss of wilderness-quality lands without congressional approval, and the Reagan administration managed to defy them in a big way.

The third reason for frustration: When it comes to public lands, Republican administrations play hard ball while Democratic administrations don't. We've already seen how the Reagan administration did a huge favor for drilling and mining interests by refusing to recognize perfectly qualified wilderness. This was just one part of their assault on public lands. So when the Clinton administration took over, much work was needed to repair the damage done by the Reagan administration.

Unfortunately, the Clinton administration did not display nearly the same zeal in protecting public lands as the Reagan administration did in drilling the hell out of them. It's not that the Clinton administration did nothing positive for public lands -- in absolute terms, they did many important things. Yet compared with the Reaganites, and relative to what they might have done, they fell disappointingly short.

Late in the Clinton administration the BLM took an important step: they put into place a mechanism for fixing errors and omissions in the Reagan wilderness inventories. It wasn't an immediate fix, but it provided a pathway to protection for deserving areas which were improperly omitted in the Reagan-era wilderness inventories.

When Bush 43 came into office, he promptly undid the Clinton wilderness review process. Much as I loathe the Bush administration's public lands policies, I have to admire the efficiency and zeal they displayed in implementing them. No Clintonian dithering for them.

Now the Obama administration is in charge of safeguarding our public lands. How are they doing? For the first two years they displayed Clintonian slow-pokishness, inexplicably failing to reverse Bush's undoing of Clinton's partial fix to Reagan's sabotage of laws designed to protect wilderness. Obama's BLM continued to approve destructive projects within pristine wilderness that should have been off-limits since 1976. (To be fair, they approved fewer such projects than Bush would have, but one expects more from a Democratic administration.)

Finally, in December 2010, they published a draft policy for wild lands, which will become effective very soon. How does the draft Obama policy compare to the Clinton policy? More importantly, how does it compare to the standard set by Congress in 1976, that all of the few remaining wild lands should be preserved as-is until Congress says explicitly that they can be developed? In the next few months, as the Obama wild lands policy is finalized and starts to be implemented on the ground, we will see how serious the Obama administration is about protecting public lands. This blog will be watching closely.