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Utah legislators say Obama reviving wilderness guidelines
By TIM HEARDEN, Capital Press 8/7/12
A pair of Utah legislators believe the Obama administration may be discreetly reviving a controversial wilderness plan that was effectively killed by Congress last year.
U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch and Rep. Rob Bishop, both Republicans, have sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar expressing concerns about language in guidance manuals for the Bureau of Land Management.
The manuals, they say, mirror the wording of a secretarial order that would have made millions of acres of undeveloped land in the West eligible for federal wilderness protection. Salazar backed away from the plan last summer after Congress defunded it.
"The wild lands policy an unpopular policy then, and it remains an unpopular policy now," the lawmakers told Salazar in their Aug. 2 letter. "The mere fact these new handbooks were developed and released without public notice only affirms our deep skepticism for the motives behind the underlying directives."
The effort further shows the administration's penchant for circumventing Congress and the public in limiting the use of federal lands, including when Interior withdrew 77 oil and gas leases in Utah, Hatch and Bishop assert.
"We were hopeful they would stick to their agreement to work with Congress in implementing new management criteria," Bishop spokeswoman Melissa Subbotin said. "It appears as though once again they're looking for a back-door approach ... to do what they want with public lands."
BLM spokesman Mitch Snow said the agency "was very clear" when it suspended the wild lands order that the law requires it to still keep track of land with wilderness characteristics and manage it accordingly.
The manuals the BLM issued to its employees in March "provide guidance about how to determine and maintain this inventory," Snow told the Capital Press in an email.
The wild lands policy was widely criticized as a "land grab" by farm groups, which argued there are already millions of acres tied up in wilderness "study areas" that were being managed as wilderness areas.
The directive reversed a Bush-era settlement between then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton, the state of Utah and other parties that revoked BLM's wilderness management guidance. That policy allowed oil and gas drilling, mining and other commercial uses on land under consideration as wilderness areas.
Hatch and Bishop argue the latest guidance manuals mirror the wild lands policy in a variety of ways. For instance, both documents dictate that "caution should be used in assessing the effect of relatively minor human impacts on naturalness. Some human works are acceptable so long as they are substantially unnoticeable."
Subbotin said many multi-generational ranching families rely on public lands to survive, and they should at least be part of any discussion of how new management criteria would apply to the land.
She said the administration didn't take the public's concerns into consideration when crafting its wild lands order.
"I think that was why there was so much opposition from folks on all sides of the aisle," she said. "It's pretty obvious that sections from wild lands were lifted verbatim from the secretarial order and put into the new guidebooks. That's obviously a big, red flag for us."
Sen. Hatch and Rep. Bishop letter to Salazar: http://robbishop.house.gov/UploadedFiles/Letter_to_Sec_Salazar_re_Wilderness_Manuals_08022012.pdf
Summary of concerns: http://robbishop.house.gov/UploadedFiles/Wildlands_2_0_Summary.pdf
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