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The Obama Administration is caving to pressure from the GOP and is no longer pushing for millions of acres of undeveloped land in the West to be eligible for federal wilderness protection. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a memo obtained by The Associated Press last month that his agency will not designate any of those public lands as “wild lands.”
Salazar’s decision in the memo reverses an order issued in December to restore eligibility for wilderness protection to millions of acres of public lands. The new policy overturned a Bush-era approach that opened some Western lands to commercial development. However, a budget deal approved by Congress prevented the Interior Department from spending money to implement the wilderness policy. Republican governors in Utah, Alaska and Wyoming, also filed suit to block the plan, saying it would hurt their state’s economies by taking federal lands off the table 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. “Since the majority of land in Utah is owned by the federal government, it is critically important to strike a balance between the needs of our local communities and the protection of public lands that truly do have wilderness characteristics rather than pandering to environmental extremists,” Hatch said. “Today’s announcement is a positive step toward restoring that balance.”
Not everyone is hailing the reversal as a victory. William Meadows, president of The Wilderness Society, said he was deeply disappointed at the decision, which he said 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.
The original order would not have necessarily blocked commercial development according to Bob Abbey, director of the land management bureau. 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.