In December of 2010, Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar released new wilderness guidance that has the potential to give needed protection to 6 million of acres of wilderness-quality lands in Utah. The new policy also reverses the much-maligned and illegal 2003 back-door agreement between former Utah governor Michael Leavitt and former Interior boss Gale Norton by which Norton renounced the BLM’s authority to manage public lands to protect their wilderness character.
There is much to like about Interior’s policy. It gives wilderness a rightful place as an equal among the range of other resources BLM must manage and protect, and it’s a critical first step towards ensuring the permanent protection of the last remaining wild lands in the West.
But of course, the path to real wilderness protection is never that simple. The new policy also has an escape hatch that allows the BLM to decide not to protect deserving lands if it decides that development is “appropriate.” That’s a loophole big enough to drive a drilling rig through, and the BLM will have to close that gap if this policy is to fix the wilderness mess that the BLM’s historically unbalanced policies have left us. And the BLM would not designate new “wilderness study areas” under the policy – another shortcoming.
There are other questions: the new policy will be applied in future land use planning and in project-level decision making, but how will wilderness character lands that were ignored in the BLM’s 2008 land use plans be protected? That includes over 2 million acres of spectacular land in the heart of the red rock.
The “No More Wilderness” debacle of 2003 was born in Utah, and leadership at Interior and the BLM must ensure that the injustices done here are remedied. The new policy has the potential to do that, but the Utah BLM is famous for digging up reasons not to protect wilderness.
There’s more work to be done. Please thank Secretary Salazar for the new policy, but let him know that the BLM must live up to the policy’s full potential to protect the last remaining wild country in Utah.