The Obama administration today roundly denounced a proposal by Republican lawmakers that would release several million acres of protected public lands into local management plans, potentially opening them to timber harvests, oil and gas development, motorized recreation and other uses.
Bob Abbey, director of the Bureau of Land Management, compared the legislation from Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) to shooting a small rabbit with a large gun, leaving almost no meat on the bone.
"H.R. 1581 is a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach, that fails to reflect local conditions and community-based interests," Abbey told the House National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee.
Abbey and Harris Sherman, undersecretary for natural resources and environment at the Agriculture Department, said they "strongly" oppose the bill. The measure would require BLM to release more than 6 million acres of wilderness study areas (WSA) that the agency in the 1980s said had wilderness characteristics but recommended as not suitable for wilderness designations, after considering local input, mineral potential and mining claims, among other issues.
The legislation also would require the Forest Service to lift protections on some 36 million acres of inventoried roadless lands that it has not recommended Congress designate as wilderness, according to the bill's sponsors.
Environmental groups say they believe the bill's language would require the agency to lift protections on at least 55 million acres. The Forest Service has confirmed neither figure.
Abbey recommended Congress instead seek to replicate provisions of the 2009 public lands omnibus package that turned 900,000 acres of WSAs into wilderness and released an additional 250,000 acres into multiple use.
He emphasized that although the agency had determined that more than 6 million acres of the total 12.7 million acres of WSAs were unsuitable for wilderness -- based on factors including mineral potential, conflicts with other uses and public opinion -- those recommendations are out of date and do not reflect current circumstances.
"These recommendations are now 20 years old, and the on-the-ground work associated with them is as much as 30 years old," he said. "Resource conditions have changed, our understanding of mineral resources has changed and public opinion has changed. If these suitability recommendations were made today, many of them would undoubtedly be different."
Abbey told Greenwire that BLM would likely recommend more areas as suitable for wilderness designation as a result of updated mineral surveys, mining claims that have been relinquished and the recovery of landscapes from prior disturbances.
Sherman said the administration strongly supports the Clinton administration's 2001 decision to prohibit most logging and road building across 58 million acres of mostly pristine forests across the West and in Alaska.
Roadless areas support biodiversity and contribute habitat for one-fourth of federally listed species and more than half of candidate species, while serving as a "bulwark" against nonnative and invasive species, he said.
He added that the rule itself does not prohibit off-highway vehicles if users stick to trails where motorized travel is allowed.
"The roadless rule itself is about building new roads," he said. "But these areas are open to people coming in and using OHVs" in addition to hunting and other forms of mechanized recreation.
The rule also allows for limited forest restoration work, thinning of hazardous fuels, hydroelectric facilities and mining projects, he said. The bill may also compromise state-tailored roadless plans in Colorado and Idaho, he warned.
But Republicans on the panel questioned Sherman and Abbey's argument that roadless management can be a boon to recreation. Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.), a co-sponsor of the House bill, asked Sherman whether a hunter could gather a big game animal if it is shot far from a road.
Barrasso called the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which mandated BLM to conduct its WSA inventory, "a giant loophole" that allows lands to be perpetually managed as wilderness at the expense of economic developments.
"This act ends the cycle of indefinite wilderness review and management of these non-wilderness recommended lands," he said.
Moreover, it would allow local stakeholders to collaborate with BLM and the Forest Service on multiple-use plans that satisfy all local needs, Barrasso said. In Wyoming, roadless areas have stymied local needs to actively manage forests killed by mountain pine beetle, raising concerns over severe wildfires and community watersheds, he said.
"There is nothing extreme about following non-wilderness recommendations. There is nothing extreme about local stakeholders participating in the planning process," Barrasso said.
Opponents of the bill, which include Democrats on the committee and environmental groups, are obstructing healthy forest management, he warned.
Environmentalists came to the hearing to voice their opposition to the bill. Some wore stickers reading "Great Outdoors Giveaway."
"The Great Outdoors Giveaway is a blank check to corporate polluters to destroy our land, air and water," said William Meadows, president of the Wilderness Society. "This risky legislation flies in the face of values the American people hold dear: that we should treasure, not squander, our lands and waters."
Others, including a Utah state lawmaker, a Wyoming county commissioner and the leader of a group that promotes access to public lands for people with disabilities, testified in support of the bill.