Salazar aide defends 'wildlands rule'

2011-02-01T23:15:00Z 2011-03-03T13:46:23Z Salazar aide defends 'wildlands rule'By JEREMY FUGLEBERG Casper Star-Tribune The Billings Gazette
February 01, 2011 11:15 pm  • 

JACKSON, Wyo. — Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is unlikely to change his mind on a rule that keeps some federal lands off limits.

The policy, known as the "wildlands rule," allows the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management to propose some federal land as protected wilderness. The policy has been condemned by energy industry representatives, congressional Republicans and Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead.

Salazar aide Steve Black on Monday said the department welcomes public input, but the decision will likely stand.

"We want to get that feedback, work through those issues," he said. "But I don't think you should expect material delay or change in the direction of that policy."

Black, who advises Salazar on energy, climate policy and related land issues, spoke before the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority board at its winter meeting in Jackson. Nearly 70 people, mostly energy industry representatives, attended the public meeting.

In December, Salazar gave the BLM permission to designate land under the rule, a reversal of a Bush administration decision in 2003 that effectively stripped the BLM of that ability. That policy — derided by some as the "no more wilderness" policy — stated that new areas could not be recommended for wilderness protection by the BLM and opened millions of acres in the Rocky Mountain region to potential commercial development.

Environmental activists have been pushing for the Obama administration to restore protection for potential wilderness areas.

Salazar said the agency will review some 220 million acres of BLM land that's not currently under wilderness protection to see which should be given a new wildlands designation — a new step for land awaiting a wilderness decision. Congress would decide whether those lands should be designated permanent wilderness areas, Salazar said.

The BLM has until June to submit a plan for those new wilderness evaluations.

While environmental groups and others rejoiced at Salazar's decision, congressional Republicans pounced on the wildlands announcement as an attempt by the Obama administration to close land to development without congressional approval.

Mead sent Salazar a letter in January in which he opposed the secretary's decision. Mead wrote that the new policy ignores the benefit that Wyoming's natural resources have on the national economy and on how dependent local and state governments are on tax revenue from energy industries. He also said he was concerned that anyone can nominate an area to receive wildlands status.

"A Wild Lands designation will further drag out (if not permanently halt) the permitting process while local economies suffer," Mead wrote. "The BLM currently does not have the appropriate resources or track record for approval of plans and projects; and this will only make the problem greater and delays longer."

Energy industry representatives widely opposed the move, fearing the rule could complicate or kill energy development proposals.

Black acknowledged that proposed electrical transmission projects are complex, particularly when considering land-use planning. But he insisted that the rule broadens the BLM's tools for its duty to determined land use and it wouldn't get in the way of energy development.

"That order should have no effect on existing projects," he said, and repeated moments later regarding transmission line development: "I don't expect that to materially delay these projects."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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