John Fielder: A win for wilderness
January 10, 2011
On December 22, 2010 Interior Secretary Ken Salazar issued an order that will go a great distance toward restoring balance to the management of BLM lands and assuring that one of the greatest values of our public lands, wilderness, is protected. The protection of the wilderness characteristics on public lands is a high priority for me, and I strongly believe wilderness protection should be a top priority for the BLM in its stewardship of its lands for all Americans. I have hiked a lot of Colorado’s 8 million acres of BLM lands, much of them red rock country and sandstone arches no less spectacular than what we enjoy in southern Utah, but also alpine beauty and “fourteeners” such as Handies and Redcloud Peaks in the San Juans. I very much appreciate our Colorado secretary’s efforts to ensure the endurance of these sublime places.
As background, in 2003, then-Interior Secretary Gail Norton entered into a settlement agreement with the State of Utah, agreeing that the BLM had no authority to inventory or designate Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) after 1993. WSAs are created to protect potential wilderness until Congress can formally decide whether to designate the area as wilderness, and in the interim, BLM is to manage these areas so as not to impair their suitability for preservation as wilderness. However, through this settlement, the BLM renounced any authority to conduct wilderness inventories or to establish new WSAs on the public lands it manages in any state. The settlement also revoked the Wilderness Inventory Handbook (which guides BLM land managers in fairly inventorying and reviewing lands with wilderness character and considering their protection during comprehensive land use planning) and disowned the BLM’s comprehensive 1999 statewide re-inventory of Utah’s public lands, specifically barring the agency from using the information to designate new WSAs. Moreover, the settlement forbid the BLM to designate any wilderness-character lands inventoried in any other state after 1993 as WSAs or to apply the agency’s long-standing guidance on managing WSAs to any other lands, the infamous “no more wilderness” settlement.
Secretary Salazar’s Order is a relief. Nevertheless, a few points related to the order raise concern and deserve additional consideration prior to issuance of implementing regulations. For example, the order does not reaffirm BLM’s authority to designate WSAs or to manage lands with wilderness characteristics as wilderness. The order does not explicitly include a non-impairment standard for wild lands. Local land managers are given too much discretion in determining whether or not to protect the wilderness character of wild lands. Since the order doesn’t explicitly detail management standards, wild lands remain vulnerable and wilderness characteristics at risk to destructive activities like oil and gas drilling, ORV use, and new road construction.
I hope that readers willing contact the Secretary and urge him to issue strong BLM guidance that undoes the “no more wilderness” settlement and clearly re-establishes the authority and responsibility of BLM to inventory and protect citizen-proposed wilderness lands, including specifically clarifying the BLM’s authority to designate new Wilderness Study Areas: firstname.lastname@example.org or a letter to: Ken Salazar, Dept. of Interior, 1849 C Street, N.W., Washington DC, 20240
John Fielder is a nature photographer based in Silverthorne.