The Bureau of Land Management this afternoon is expected to overturn a George W. Bush administration policy barring the agency from temporarily protecting lands with wilderness qualities.
The scheduled 2 p.m. Eastern Standard Time announcement by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and BLM Director Bob Abbey in Denver could upend part or all of a 2003 settlement by then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton and the state of Utah and allow BLM to once again preserve roadless landscapes until Congress decides whether to pass permanent protections.
Conservation groups for years have lobbied Interior to overturn the Norton settlement -- known as the "no more wilderness" policy -- arguing that it blocked the agency from its statutory duty to protect pristine landscapes in its resource management plans.
The lawsuit with the state of Utah barred BLM from taking stock of wilderness quality lands on all of its 256 million acres, reaching far beyond the few oil and gas leases in Utah that had been at issue in the case, groups contend.
The new policy will "give back to BLM the authority to conduct wilderness inventories, identify lands with wilderness character, set them up as wildlands for interim protection until Congress has to act," said a source familiar with the new policy. "And it'll allow BLM to do these assessments in Alaska, too."
The new policy would be a crucial tool for BLM to protect the ecological and recreational values of lands in the face of proposed oil and gas development or off-highway vehicle use, proponents say. Wilderness management bars the use of machines, including bicycles and off-road vehicles, and is opposed by many people in the West who claim it stifles economic development.
The Interior announcement is "going to address the deficiencies in BLM's policies with respect to unprotected, but wilderness-quality, lands," said Dave Alberswerth, the Wilderness Society's senior policy adviser on energy issues. "It's going to be a repudiation of Norton's policy" and a recognition of BLM's duty under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act to protect its remaining roadless areas.
"FLPMA gives BLM authority to protect lands in their natural conditions," Alberswerth said. "That is a positive responsibility they have under law, which was basically given short shrift under the Bush administration."
Enacted in 1976, the FLPMA ordered BLM to identify "Wilderness Study Areas" for Congress to consider designating as permanent wilderness.
BLM currently manages 570 wilderness study areas covering just more than 13 million acres. And while the agency's congressional authority to establish WSAs expired in 1991, BLM continued to administratively designate WSAs under FLPMA until the Norton settlement.
The new policy will likely not revive the use of WSAs, but would allow BLM to recognize lands under a non-impairment standard, Alberswerth said.
The policy could offer temporary solace to conservation groups whose hopes were dashed this week with the collapse of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's (D-Nev.) omnibus package of public lands bills, which included three proposals to designate roughly 300,000 acres of new wilderness (E&E Daily, Dec. 23).
Separate bills in more than a dozen states, including Montana, Idaho and Colorado, would have designated more than 2 million acres of new wilderness, but failed to pass the 111th Congress.
Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee's public lands panel, last week said he was happy that BLM appeared to be returning to a management policy emphasizing conservation.
"We're looking forward to the designations and the plans they come up with," Grijalva told E&E. "We're glad they're moving back to that stewardship that they had before."
Brian Hawthorne, public lands policy director for the Idaho-based BlueRibbon Coalition, which advocates for off-highway vehicle access on public lands, declined to comment on the policy until it was officially announced, but said he does not think FLPMA intended to give BLM authority to manage new lands as de facto wilderness.
"A plain reading seems to indicate Congress has precluded a never ending, ongoing Wilderness inventory and gave a specific time limit on designations of WSAs," Hawthorne said in an e-mail. "It also seems to prohibit a 'de facto' wilderness management for WSAs."