When Interior Secretary Ken Salazar ordered the Bureau of Land Management to begin looking for wild lands in the West, he set up a new chapter in an old confrontation.
Conservation and environmental organizations in Colorado saw an opportunity to take a step toward long-sought goals of having land across the state — most of them in northwest Colorado — and in neighboring Utah set aside for preservation of wilderness characteristics.
Others, however, saw the inventory of wild lands as a threat to the energy and other industries.
The order by Salazar, a former Colorado senator and onetime head of the state’s Department of Natural Resources, was innocuous, said Kurt Kunkle, wilderness coordinator for the Colorado Environmental Coalition.
Salazar’s Secretarial Order 3310 was merely aimed at complying with federal law, the Federal Lands Policy Management Act, which calls for a inventory of such lands.
“It’s not a land grab,” Kunkle said. “I’m kind of surprised by all the hubbub around wild-lands policy.”
Salazar’s order reinstated long-standing BLM authority that was reversed during the George W. Bush administration, Kunkle said.
That’s not to say, however, that Kunkle’s organization and others want the land only to be inventoried.
“We still would like to look at a map and see wilderness one day,” Kunkle said.
Talk about doing that, however, already is having the unwelcome effect of further depressing an already stressed economy in the northwest part of the state, U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., said.
The starting point for the wild-lands discussion in western Colorado are proposals set out in 2006 by the Southern Rockies Conservation Alliance, which outlines 60 proposed wilderness areas, and a majority of them, 37, are in northwest Colorado. The areas were offered as wilderness proposals by residents.
Tipton’s district affected
Conservation and environmental organizations see Salazar’s order as a return to the original idea of land management in the West.
Tipton says the Interior Department “overreached its authority, moving into the powers granted to Congress.”
“We need input first, rather than after the fact,” Tipton said.
Tipton’s 3rd Congressional District, which he wrested from Salazar’s brother John in November, includes most of the Western Slope. It is potentially the most heavily affected in Colorado by the wild-lands proposal.
Many of the proposed northwest Colorado areas are where the oil and gas industry is active or holds leases, including the Roan Plateau in Garfield County and Vermillion Basin in Moffat County.
Salazar’s order calls on the BLM to protect lands with wilderness characteristics by avoiding “impairment” of those lands “unless the BLM determines that impairment of wilderness characteristics is appropriate and consistent” with existing law and other considerations.
The order requires that wild lands be recognized as a part of the development of resource-management plans, which guide the management of bureau districts for 20 years.
It’s in the drafting of those plans that the public will have the opportunity to be deeply involved in the wild-lands discussion, Interior Department officials say.
Uintah County, Utah, Commissioner Mike McKee said he fears that Interior Department officials in Washington, D.C., would be able to supersede local and state bureau officials and play too great a role in determining whether lands have wilderness characteristics that need to be protected from development.
The secretarial order wipes out work already done in many parts of the West and lets environmental organizations take another shot at establishing wild lands after decisions have been reached, McKee said.
“So, it’s a continual moving ball,” he said.
The wild-lands proposal also stands to hinder efforts to develop domestic energy resources, Tipton said.
“The West is mineral rich, and there are those of us who believe there can be a win-win” with energy and environmental concerns, Tipton said.
Industry already has a big lead in that department, environmental organizations said, pointing to statistics showing that one acre of BLM land is set aside as wilderness for every 42 acres leased by oil and gas corporations. More than 64 percent of lease acres remain to be drilled, according to checksandbalancesproject.org, which criticizes leasing as “simply a land grab on the part of fossil fuels corporations.”
Restrictions on drilling and rising unemployment in the West are likely connected, Tipton said.
“I don’t think you can dismiss it as a potential cause of unemployment,” Tipton said, noting the 11 percent unemployment rate in Mesa County, which three years ago was a booming energy area.
Recognition of wild lands could be beneficial to the recreation industry, which includes hunting, angling and wildlife viewing, said Suzanne O’Neill, executive director of the Colorado Wildlife Federation.
Salazar’s order put back in place a criterion for the multiple-use evaluation of BLM holdings that had been removed in 2003, O’Neill said.
“We are comfortable with it being a criterion” in deciding how to manage those lands, especially considering that wild lands could be an important part of a robust outdoor-recreation segment of the regional economy, O’Neill said. “We can have extraction, and we can have areas that are really for wildlife recreation.”