Bush administration erases wilderness protections
The Bush administration has wiped out protection for millions of acres of proposed wilderness in the West, including 600,000 acres in Colorado and more than 2.6 million acres of redrock wilderness in southern Utah.
After Monday’s ruling, the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, can no longer protect or inventory vast areas with wilderness character.
The guidelines, issued by Interior Department Secretary Gale Norton impact many destinations popular with outdoor enthusiasts. Scenic spots near Moab, such as Fish and Owl Creek, Fisher Towers and Dirty Devil, lie in areas now subject to oil and gas drilling, off-road vehicle use, mining and other activities previously off-limits.
Colorado’s 38,000-acre Roan Plateau and a 3,500-acre parcel of the nearby Hack Lake Flat Tops Addition also lost the opportunity for wilderness consideration and protection.
“This is a horrible decision,” said Larry Young, executive director of Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “This has a major impact on millions of acres of land with wilderness character.”
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Young said that the administration has made oil and gas development its top priority for BLM lands and that Norton has stripped citizens and land managers of their primary tool to strike a balance between preservation and development.
Jamie Connell, a BLM field manager based in Glenwood Springs and former Dillon District Ranger, said the changes are more subtle than most people think. She stressed that many areas are not affected. Approved wilderness, such as Eagles Nest and Ptarmigan, and wilderness study areas (WSAs) retain protection under the new guidelines.
The areas most affected are Citizen’s Wilderness Proposal areas – land proposed by citizens as potential wilderness and subsequently inventoried by the BLM and determined to have wilderness characteristics.
“The lands that are currently WSAs were protected yesterday and they are protected today,” said Connell.
Connell also said that resource extraction and other land uses always have been given consideration in decisions about wilderness designation.
The new policies resulted from the settlement of a lawsuit brought against the Interior Department by the state of Utah. Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, now President Bush’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, had sued over the department’s ability to protect areas not yet officially designated as wilderness or as WSAs.
On Thursday, Congressman Mark Udall (D-Boulder), who represents Summit and Eagle counties, expressed his opposition to the guidelines. He said they should not apply to Colorado, partly because the original dispute involved proposed wilderness in Utah.
According to a spokesman from Udall’s Washington office, Colorado has its own wilderness protection plan developed according to the specific needs of the state, its citizens and its unique physical geography. The congressman believes that Colorado’s policy should be preserved.
Udall will make his view known to Norton and will seek a change in the new guidelines. He also will explore the possibility of congressional action to stop the rollback of protection for BLM lands.
In the meantime, the BLM no longer has the authority to protect wilderness-quality land in Colorado and other western states that were awaiting official designation.
In a statement to the Denver Post Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Denver) said that, without such protection, a proposed wilderness area could be damaged, thus losing its credentials for wilderness designation.
For an area to be designated as wilderness and receive the resulting protections, it must be virtually undisturbed by human activity or development.
The Interior Department’s new guidelines also alter the process by which lands are considered for wilderness designation. Previously, the decision to set aside an area as wilderness was based on its wilderness character.
Under the new guidelines, potential industrial and recreational uses, such as oil and gas drilling, off-road vehicle use and mining, are formally brought into the equation.
Environmentalists have blasted the new policy as a backroom deal between Norton and Leavitt that puts the interests of drilling, mining, logging and road construction ahead of the public interest.
“Despite overwhelming public support for protecting our nation’s special wild lands, this administration refuses to include wilderness in its vocabulary and to keep wilderness on the table as a tool for federal agencies,” said Mike Matz, executive director of the Campaign for America’s Wilderness.
“Our children and theirs will be the ultimate losers in this sellout of America’s wild heritage to corporate interests.”