DENVER -- 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, Salazar said. 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 opened millions of acres in the Rocky Mountain region to potential commercial development.
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 Utah.
The policy allowed oil and gas drilling, mining and other commercial uses on land under consideration as 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 step for land awaiting a wilderness decision. Congress would decide whether those lands should be designated permanent wilderness areas, Salazar said.
Several Utah politicians denounced the administration's plan.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, called the decision a "brazen attempt to kowtow to radical environmentalist groups by locking up more public lands in Utah and other states."
Hatch said the policy change is an attempted end run around the 2003 agreement that requires the federal government to get congressional approval for wilderness designations.
"The decision to withdraw from the agreement is an insult to the people of Utah," Hatch said. "Changing the wildlands-designation policy will destroy the balance and clarity that comes from allowing Congress to work with the public to develop and pass land-use bills ..."
U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said the new policy will allow the BLM to designate public lands as de facto wilderness without the approval of states or Congress by using the "Wild Lands" designation.
These new areas would be subject to similar regulations and restrictions as those of wilderness areas, Bishop said.
"Make no mistake about it, this decision will seriously hinder domestic energy development and further contributes to the uncertainty and economic distress that continues to prevent the creation of new jobs in a region that has unduly suffered from this administration's radical policies," Bishop said.
Gov. Gary Herbert said the decision could undermine efforts made in Utah to protect the land.
The Governor's Balanced Resource Council, led by Herbert's environmental adviser Ted Wilson, has been working with local governments, environmental groups, concerned citizens and others on wilderness designation throughout the state.
"This decision may unintentionally damage all of the good will that we have worked so hard to build between the state, local governments, the environmental community and federal officials," Herbert said.
Environmental activists have been pushing for the Obama administration to restore protections for potential wilderness areas.
BLM Director Bob Abbey said it hasn't been decided how many acres are expected 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.
Environmental groups 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.
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 eastern Montana 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.
Salazar's reversal doesn't affect about 8.7 million acres already designated as wilderness areas.