Republicans fear 'war on the West' in new wild lands protection

Western Republican lawmakers and governors object to Obama administration plans to consider whether millions of acres of federal land in the West should be protected as 'wild lands.'

Robert Harbison/The Christian Science Monitor/File
An oil pumping station on federal land between Canyonlands and Arches National Parks in Utah. The Obama administration plans to consider whether millions of acres of federal land in the West should be protected as 'wild lands.'
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar testifies before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on the Interior Department Budget for FY2012.

Western Republican lawmakers and governors are up in arms over the Obama administration's plan to consider whether millions of acres of federal land in the West should be protected as "wild lands."

Their outrage is setting the stage for a new round of the "sagebrush rebellion" over land use in the West – a battle that could have repercussions for Election 2012.

The Obama administration's plan would require federal agencies to manage such land primarily to preserve its wilderness characteristics – which could mean restrictions on commercial uses, including oil and gas development as well as motorized recreation. In essence, the new thrust reverses a 2003 Bush administration policy opening up federal land to more extractive uses.

In congressional testimony this week, Rep. Denny Rehberg of Montana called it a “war on the West.”

Noting that royalties from mineral development help pay for public schools, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, said, “This order hinders rural economic development and hurts key funding sources for Utah's school children.”

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter urged Congress to "take back its authority" and block the new policy. (Under the Wilderness Act of 1964, only Congress can officially designate “wilderness” – areas “where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”)

The point of contention is Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s order in December that the Bureau of Land Management (which oversees some 245 million acres, most of it in the West) should regularly inventory its lands, factoring in wild characteristics when making land-use decisions.

The idea, according to the Interior Department, is to “restore balance and clarity to the management of public lands by establishing common-sense policy for the protection of backcountry areas where Americans recreate, find solitude, and enjoy the wild.”

“Wild lands” would be designated after gathering public input, and unlike “wilderness” they could be given more (or less) protection without an act of Congress.

Old West vs. new West

The balance between environmental preservation and the use of natural resources – mining, logging, cattle grazing, oil and gas drilling, water – has been part of western history for a century or more, particularly since so much of the region is managed by federal agencies such as the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service.

The doctrine of “multiple use,” in place for decades, has virtually guaranteed that federal land management would be controversial and contentious. In some Western states, government agencies are in charge of most of the territory – Nevada (76 percent), Utah (70 percent), and Idaho (61 percent).

Over time, the issue has developed into conflict between the “old West” of ranching and mining and the “new West” increasingly populated by vacationers, retirees from urban areas, and those who work in fields such as high-tech development, finance, real estate, and media. Sometimes it erupts into a “sagebrush rebellion” as rural areas, economic interests, and state and local officials butt heads with federal agencies.

That’s where things are headed now in a way that could impact next year’s elections.

“If you make enough noise and clamor about this huge land grab, and Obama allows Interior Secretary Salazar to go ahead and designate the Wild Lands, it will make your Democrat Senators and Congressmen look weak and ineffective,” writes Chuck Cushman of the American Land Rights Association in an e-mail to supporters. “That will help you defeat them in November 2012. Many are already vulnerable and will not be eager to get the credit for creating more Federal land set asides and hurting their local governments.”

Who likes the plan

While they were happy to see an end to the Bush administration, many environmentalists have not been thrilled with President Obama. Green issues have not been a top priority for him, and they saw in Secretary Salazar (a former US senator from Colorado) an official apparently enthusiastic about developing domestic resources as a way toward energy independence.

That could be changing with Salazar’s latest action.

“This new policy is our best shot at protecting many lands that we have fought to defend from degradation and abuse during the Bush administration,” Juli Slivka of the Wilderness Society writes on the organization’s website.

“In the five Rocky Mountain states with the most oil and gas development,” she points out, “one percent of land managed by the BLM is designated Wilderness, while 42 percent of the BLM’s land is leased to the oil and gas industry.”

Outfitters and recreation businesses also like the new policy.

In a letter to Congress this week, a group of business owners from six Western states cite research by the Outdoor Industry Association showing that "rural counties with wilderness or other protected federal lands experience greater economic and population growth than those without wilderness."

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