PUBLIC LANDS:

BLM charm offensive backfires, critics fume over 'wild lands' policy

Bureau of Land Management Director Bob Abbey's meetings with top elected leaders from Western states has failed to soothe anger over his agency's new "wild lands" policy that could extend the highest level of federal protection to millions of acres of public land.

Some who have met with the BLM director in the past week say Abbey has failed to provide key details about how the Dec. 22, 2010, executive order from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will be enforced and what impact it will have on key policies like energy development and recreation on public lands.

Utah Rep. Rob Bishop (R), who met privately with Abbey on Wednesday in Washington, D.C., said he came away "extremely frustrated" with the BLM chief's responses to fundamental questions about how the new wild lands directive will be implemented.

"I kept asking for reasons and specifics," said Bishop, chairman of the House National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee.

"'Why replace the resource management plans already in place?' They won't tell me why or what that was about," he continued.

"'How are you going to manage wild lands differently than others?' They say they'll have a new criteria or standard. 'What will that be?' They don't know, and they can't give me an example.

"'How are you going to adjust the prioritization of multiple use?' They don't know. I'm sorry, I got absolutely no answers," Bishop concluded.

The Utah Republican vowed to call top Interior officials before his subcommittee to provide more detailed answers. Meantime, he said, he and like-minded colleagues in Congress will use "whatever means of pushback is available" to keep the new wild lands policy from changing the regulatory landscape for users of public lands.

Abbey and Salazar also met this week with Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and the Environment. Simpson's office issued a statement that indicated the congressman was unmoved by the meeting and still has concerns about Interior overextending its authority on lands management.

The pressure is coming from statehouses as well.

Newly elected Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R) on Tuesday sent a letter to Salazar asking the secretary to repeal the wild lands order lest the state's economy take a hit from new regulations created by an "administrative fiat" (E&ENews PM, Jan. 18).

In a follow-up conference call with reporters, Mead said the order "ignores the revenues our state and local governments depend upon for minerals and other development, and it fails to address the impact to ranchers and those involved in recreation."

Mead's letter came three days after Abbey sat before Utah Gov. Gary Herbert's (R) Balanced Resources Council, where senior state officials -- including Herbert and Lt. Gov. Greg Bell (R) -- grilled him for more than an hour on the new policy.

Fateful meeting

Some took as a symbolic gesture Abbey's literal misstep as approached the podium at the Utah Senate committee room in Salt Lake City, resulting in the BLM director falling face down.

The packed meeting was also punctuated by groans and jeers, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, with many in the standing-room-only crowd sporting "Stop the Land Grab" buttons.

Former Rep. Jim Hansen (R), who represented Utah's 1st congressional district from 1981 to 2002, was applauded when he told Abbey that protecting new lands without congressional approval is illegal, according to the Tribune. But the decision to invite Hansen to address the meeting was protested by council member Patrick Shea, who served briefly as BLM director under the Clinton administration.

According to others who attended the meeting, Shea stormed out after Hansen was permitted to speak.

Ted Wilson, Herbert's senior environmental adviser and chairman of the Balanced Resources Council, in an interview with Land Letter this week, downplayed the tension at the Salt Lake meeting.

"Bob's a very good guy and he tried very hard to answer the questions," Wilson said of Abbey. "I think more than anything the meeting exposed the complexity of the issue. We were hoping for easy answers, which we always do, but there aren't any and I think even director Abbey is still trying to figure it all out."

Yet some environmentalists who tried to get into the packed main meeting room but were directed to adjacent rooms where only an audio feed of the hearing was available accused state officials of stacking the meeting room with opponents to the wild lands policy.

"That meeting was designed as an opportunity to beat up on the Bureau of Land Management, and many people took advantage of that," said Heidi McIntosh, associate director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and one of the few environmentalists who got a seat in the main meeting room. "It was rigged."

Wilson scoffed at the allegation. He said opponents to the wild lands policy just arrived to the meeting earlier than SUWA and other environmentalists and got the better seats.

"We didn't have anything to do with that," he said. "The state's neutral. We're not trying to inflame anybody."

Not deterred

Celia Boddington, a BLM spokeswoman in Washington, D.C., said that the heated rhetoric from Western leaders would not shake the agency's resolve to implement and enforce the new policy to protect pristine public lands deemed to have wilderness characteristics.

Boddington said BLM experts are working to finalize the language and requirements of the wild lands order by the end of next month and the final document will contain many of the details that Western lawmakers say they want. BLM will then spend months conducting an inventory of wilderness-quality lands in each state where it has parcels.

"Whenever we do something and move forward, we're pretty certain it will attract some controversy. It's the nature of the agency," she said. "Bob Abbey wants to reach out to people, but we are moving forward."

As part of its public relations strategy, Interior this week repackaged its "wild lands" policy documents into a press release titled "Wild Land Protection: Common Sense Management for Places Americans Love." Among other things, the release highlights editorials from national and Western newspapers praising the wild lands order.

McIntosh of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which lobbied hard to promote the new policy, said Interior is doing the right thing by pushing forward with the plan.

"I know that Bob Abbey and Interior will stick to this because they're right," McIntosh said. "And they have a lot of support."

Chilling effect on drilling

But Richard Ranger, a senior policy adviser with the American Petroleum Institute, said the wild lands policy could greatly impede energy development on public lands across the West.

Ranger said about 27 percent of the natural gas and 14 percent of the domestic crude comes from Intermountain West region, and nearly half of that production comes from wells on public lands.

"Right now, public lands in the [Intermountain West] are a key component of our domestic energy supply," Ranger said. "So we have very real concerns about the immediate and practical impacts standing in the way of new leasing in the Intermountain West."

Peter Jenks, Bishop's district director in Ogden, Utah, said some county commissioners in the district have told him that the wild lands policy has prompted BLM to re-evaluate or delay potential oil and gas leases within their counties.

"It's already having an impact," Jenks said.

But Abbey noted during last week's Balanced Resources Council meeting that 5 million acres of BLM land in the state is under lease, but only 1 million acres of leased land is in use.

And McIntosh, the SUWA official, pointed to studies showing that as much as 80 percent of BLM land in Utah is available for lease. "Something is keeping the industry from drilling," McIntosh said, "but it's not wilderness."

Click here to read Salazar's order.

Click here to read Mead's letter.

Click here to read the DOI press release.

Streater writes from Colorado Springs, Colo.

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