DENVER (AP) — The Obama administration plans to reverse a Bush-era policy and make millions of undeveloped acres of land once again eligible for federal wilderness protection, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Thursday.
The agency will replace the 2003 policy adopted under former Interior Secretary Gale Norton. That policy — derided by some as the "No More Wilderness" policy — stated that new areas could not be recommended for wilderness protection by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and it opened millions of acres to potential commercial development.
That policy "frankly never should have happened and was wrong in the first place," Salazar said Thursday.
Environmental activists have been pushing for the Obama administration to restore protections for potential wilderness areas.
Salazar said the agency will review some 220 million acres of BLM land that's not currently under wilderness protection to see which should be given a new "Wild Lands" designation — a new first step for land awaiting a wilderness decision. Congress would decide whether those lands should be permanently protected, Salazar said.
Congressional Republicans pounced on the "Wild Lands" announcement as an attempt by the Obama administration to close land to development without congressional approval.
"This backdoor approach is intended to circumvent both the people who will be directly affected and Congress," said Washington Rep. Doc Hastings, a Republican tapped to lead the House Natural Resources Committee when the GOP takes control of the House in January.
The Congressional Western Caucus, an all-Republican group, also blasted the decision. "This is little more than an early Christmas present to the far left extremists who oppose the multiple use of our nation's public lands," Utah Rep. Rob Bishop said in a statement.
BLM Director Bob Abbey said it hasn't been decided how many acres are expected to be designated as "Wild Lands" and whether those acres will be off-limits to motorized recreation or commercial development while under congressional review. It's also unclear whether there will be a time limit on how long acres can be managed as "Wild Lands" before a decision is made on their future.
The BLM has six months to submit a plan for those new wilderness evaluations.
These "Wild Lands" would be separate from Wilderness Study Areas that must be authorized by Congress. Wild Lands can be designated by the BLM after a public planning process and would be managed with protective measures detailed in a land use plan.
Ranchers, oil men and others have been suspicious of federal plans to lock up land in the West, worrying that taking the BLM land out of production would kill rural economies that rely on ranchers and the oil and gas business.
Their suspicions have been heightened since memos leaked in February revealed the Obama administration was considering 14 sites in nine states for possible presidential monument declarations.
That included 2.5 million acres of northeastern Montana prairie land proposed as a possible bison range, along with sites in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, California, Nevada, Arizona, Oregon and Washington.
The 2003 policy was an out-of-court deal struck between Norton and then-Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt to remove protections for some 2.6 million acres of public land in that state.
The policy allowed drilling, mining and other commercial uses on land under consideration as wilderness areas.
Salazar's reversal doesn't affect about 8.7 million acres already designated as wilderness areas.
Conservationists praised the reversal, though there has been grumbling that it took the Obama administration nearly two years to overturn the Bush-era policy.
"Washington D.C. always takes longer than you want, but we're glad we've gotten here," said Suzanne Jones, regional director for The Wilderness Society.