INTERIOR:

Wilderness policy draws fire from Wyo. governor, ranchers

The Wyoming governor and public lands ranchers wrote separate letters this week slamming a new Interior Department policy reaffirming the use of temporary wilderness protections on public lands.

In response, the agency went on the offensive with an e-mail to media this afternoon emphasizing the Bureau of Land Management's congressional mandate to protect wilderness resources, an obligation the Wilderness Society echoed in a press conference earlier today.

At issue is Interior's announcement in late December that it was reversing course on a 2003 settlement between then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton and former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt (R) that ended BLM's wilderness inventory on all 250 million acres it manages (Greenwire, Dec. 23, 2010).

But the new policy was crafted behind closed doors and fails to take into account input from Western states that rely heavily on the multiple use of public lands for revenues and economic development, said Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R).

"The release of the policy as a done deal for states with a lot of public land, like Wyoming, invites suspicion," Mead said in a letter yesterday to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. "The wild lands policy has consequential uncertainty and yet an obvious motive -- to remove multiple-use possibilities from public land through the designation of lands as 'Wild.'"

Mead, who recently replaced former Democratic governor and outspoken Interior critic Dave Freudenthal, said BLM has already fallen behind in approving permits for projects on public lands and that a mandate to inventory more wilderness would siphon agency staff.

"A wild lands designation will further drag out -- if not permanently halt -- the permitting process while local economies suffer," said Mead, who scheduled a media briefing to discuss the policy this evening.

Ranching groups meanwhile said they are concerned the policy will reduce the number of grazing allotments on public lands by prioritizing wilderness protections above other public lands uses.

"The BLM, by placing higher emphasis on managing for wilderness characteristics than on managing for other uses, will be diverging significantly from its mandated mission," said a letter today to Salazar from the Public Lands Council, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the American Sheep Industry Association and signed by several other ranching groups.

Roads, water systems and other range improvements would be made impossible or extremely difficult to maintain under a wild lands designation that bars the use of mechanical transportation, the groups warned.

"If your allotment falls in one of those areas, it become economically unfeasible to run your operations," said Dustin Van Liew, PLC executive director and NCBA director of federal lands.

Defending BLM's policy

Salazar's order does not specifically address grazing, but most wilderness areas and BLM-designated Wilderness Study Areas allow continued grazing, said Nada Culver, director of the Wilderness Society's BLM Action Center in Denver.

"The Wilderness Act itself specifically provides that grazing is compatible with protecting wilderness values," Culver said. "I think we'll be expecting a similar approach here."

Moreover, Salazar's order did not elevate wilderness values above other uses such as grazing or oil and gas development on public lands as the ranching groups suggest, Culver said.

"This is a key part of the BLM's legal mandate," Culver said this morning at a media briefing on public lands policies. "The secretarial order restored wilderness from what had become its second-class status on our public lands" but did not say wilderness was more important than other developments.

Conservation groups that support the new policy point out that the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 specifically requires BLM to "preserve and protect certain public lands in their natural condition" and that Salazar's order last month merely reaffirmed a policy that had been used by Democratic and Republican presidents alike until the George W. Bush administration.

Interior did not respond to a request for comment by press time, but issued a statement to the media in an e-mail laying out the agency's congressional obligation to protect wilderness resources.

"The policy affirms the Bureau of Land Management's responsibility to take into account all of the resources for which it is responsible -- including wilderness characteristics -- when it conducts its transparent, public land use planning process," Interior said. "It also provides local communities and the public a strong voice in how we manage backcountry areas for our children, grandchildren and future generations."

Click here to read the letter from Wyoming's governor.

Click here to read the letter from the public lands and ranching groups.

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