PUBLIC LANDS:

Salazar defends wilderness policy as being on 'very solid grounds'

Countering recent Republican criticism, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar yesterday said his agency is not undermining Congress by ordering field managers to take stock of wilderness-quality lands across millions of acres in the West.

The Bureau of Land Management's new "wild lands" policy, in fact, fulfills the agency's multiple use mission as mandated by federal law, Salazar said.

"The law that governs the multiple use mission of the Bureau of Land Management ... certainly gives BLM the authority to manage the lands for multiple uses, and it includes, in our view, the management for wilderness characteristics," Salazar said yesterday following an Interior employee town hall meeting. "We're on very solid grounds, and I feel very comfortable with the fact that we've put wilderness back at the table where it had been taken away from the table for so many years."

Salazar was referring to a 2003 settlement between then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton and then-Utah. Gov. Mike Leavitt (R) which ended BLM's national guidance on how to inventory and manage lands with wilderness characteristics.

Norton's "no more wilderness" policy was overturned by last month's secretarial order directing BLM to protect wilderness characteristics through land-use planning and project-level decisions.

But the order has drawn fierce opposition from Western lawmakers, governors and public lands users who, fearing that it will stifle activities like energy development, off-highway vehicle use and ranching, have called on Salazar to clarify the order's intent or rescind it altogether (E&E Daily, Jan. 26).

Marcilynn Burke, BLM's deputy director for policy, said at yesterday's town hall that she has met with at least 40 congressional staff over the past three days to discuss the policy and has left most meetings confident that the agency made the right decision.

Salazar, who himself recently met with Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) -- a skeptic of the policy who chairs the House subcommittee that funds BLM -- asked Burke in jest, "Are you still alive?"

Burke replied, "Most thought those would be difficult occasions. But they were not difficult, because I have great confidence that we made a great decision and that this is something that the field needed, that the country needed."

Salazar said he was scheduled to meet with three Western senators last night to discuss the wild lands policy, but an agency spokeswoman said the meetings could be canceled due to inclement weather.

The agenda included a meeting with Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee, who shortly after being sworn into office this month fired off an angry letter to Salazar demanding documents related to the wild lands policy and warning that the order will hinder energy production and increase uncertainty for Utah businesses.

"This order will result in lost jobs, investment and revenues at a time when we can least afford it," Lee said at the time. "I will not sit idly by while the federal government puts a choke hold on our most valuable resources."

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