INTERIOR:

Salazar promises major push in Congress for new wilderness package

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar today will ask members of Congress to move forward with legislation to create new wilderness areas and assemble a public lands package that can pass the 112th Congress.

Speaking a day after former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt implored the Obama administration to take executive action to protect the environment -- blaming White House "munchkins" for bartering away public lands (E&ENews PM, June 8) -- Salazar said he is ready to get behind numerous wilderness bills that carry strong local support.

Salazar spoke last night before the Wilderness Society's annual awards ceremony at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, where top Obama administration officials joined leaders of major environmental groups, including actor and conservationist Edward Norton.

"What we will be doing tomorrow is asking the members of Congress to help us move forward with legislation that will be like the 2009 omnibus public lands bill that will identify those areas where we believe there is significant support for the creation of additional wilderness," Salazar said. "We need to move forward and create additional wilderness so that these places that are so precious and yet so limited are places that we protect and preserve for a long time."

Salazar cited bills by Democrats and Republicans in New Mexico, Idaho and California that would create roughly half a million acres of new wilderness where motorized and industrial activities would be barred to protect recreational opportunities and pristine landscapes.

He said he spoke a few months ago at the White House with Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, about Issa's bill to designate wilderness at Beauty Mountain in Southern California.

More than a dozen wilderness bills in several states have been introduced so far this Congress (Greenwire, May 3). A handful have received committee hearings, but none has been marked up.

"There are a whole host of other bills out there," Salazar said. "Our hope is to be able to assemble those pieces of legislation where we believe we will have the political clout to be able to get them through."

But Salazar acknowledged the difficulty of pushing conservation in a highly partisan Congress as the nation struggles to emerge from a deep recession. He warned that the United States' conservation legacy is "imperiled" and urged those in the room to galvanize members of Congress and the White House.

He cited steps the administration has taken, including the creation of the 1-million-acre Flint Hills Legacy Conservation Area in Kansas and the potential creation of a new Everglades Headwaters wildlife refuge, while hinting also at future executive actions.

"We look forward to additional administrative action on [Alaska's] Bristol Bay," Salazar said. The Obama administration spared the area, which is rich in fisheries, scenery and recreational opportunities, from oil and gas drilling through at least 2017.

"You will see the creation of the Swan Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Montana," Salazar said. "You will see a whole host of other conservation initiatives that all of you can be very proud of."

But Salazar also warned that proposed budget cuts in Congress threaten to derail new administration programs such as Obama's Great Outdoors Initiative to connect Americans to nature, as well as existing Interior programs.

House appropriators are grappling with a proposal to slash more than $2 billion from the bill that funds Interior, the Forest Service and U.S. EPA. Republican leaders have said much of those cuts could come from Obama proposals to acquire and conserve new public lands and protect at-risk species.

"The congressional budget that is being considered now would essentially gut our ability to move forward with a conservation agenda, it would gut the ability to protect what we have, it would gut the ability to do more of the kinds of the things Secretary Babbitt and [philanthropist Hansjorg Wyss] have stood up for for so many years," Salazar said.

Salazar's speech was partly in response to pointed criticism this week from Babbitt, who blamed Obama for failing to repel Republican policy riders in an April funding bill that rolled back a secretarial order to protect roadless lands.

Salazar said he appreciated Babbitt's passion for public lands and that he took no offense to the former secretary's remarks.

"People ask me if I was mad about your speech," Salazar said. "The truth is I was not mad, I said Bruce speaks with passion because he cares."

Babbitt, who sat at a table with Norton and Harris Sherman, the Agriculture Department's undersecretary for natural resources and environment, said his criticism was aimed at the White House and not Interior.

"Ken, I want you to know that when I used the word munchkins, I wasn't referring to anybody in the Interior Department," said Babbitt, who was honored last night with the Wilderness Society's Ansel Adams award. "But I can't say the same thing about the crowd at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue."

Babbitt was praised for his creation of the National Landscape Conservation System, the 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah and 21 other national monuments under the Clinton administration, among other things.

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