Friday, December 24, 2010

Whose Wilderness Is It, Anyway?

Utah includes nearly 20 million acres of public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management  -- photo by L. Drake for MicroBureau West

Washington, D.C. --

The Department of the Interior has just announced a reversal of the "drill, baby, drill" and "no more wilderness" era that began with the Bush administration's policies on public lands more than 10 years prior. Last Thursday, Interior Secretary and westerner Ken Salazar announced that the Bureau of Land Management will have the authority to set aside large tracts of federally-owned land that may need special consideration as "wild lands." Congress would still have the last word on what areas would be deemed formal "wilderness status," and thus permanently protected from extraction use and other commercial development. Some people in the state of Utah apparently didn't hear that last part. Congress will still have the same authority to designate formal wilderness areas.

In Utah, where there are nearly 20 million acres that are federally administered by the BLM, there was an immediate knee-jerk reaction from state politicians eager to attack the Obama administration as has been their norm. Reaction in that state may prove to be premature, where the state's righters often don't wait to consume and completely acknowledge all of the facts. However, Utah Governor Gary Herbert was so angered by Salazar’s announcement, he phoned BLM Administrator Bob Abbey to rail against what the governor calls “political posturing.” Uh, kind of like the federal government did with the natives of Utah prior to 1847.

“This decision may unintentionally damage all of the goodwill that we have worked so hard to build between the state, local governments, the environmental community and federal officials,” Utah's Governor Herbert said. (source: the Salt Lake Tribune). Plenty of observers would describe the Utah governor's statements as disingenuous at best, given the history of Utah's animus toward the Obama administration during the past two years. Herbert must believe that his opinion on the matter really counts now.

The Utah Governor could examine the history of his land, which as a territory designated by the federal government of the United States, petitioned for statehood several times, finally being admitted in 1896 and named by its native people. The name "Utah" is a word from the Ute tribe meaning "people of the mountains." The people referred to in that language were the original inhabitants before United States came to be and before the arrival of mostly European settlers in 1847 during the nation's westward expansion. Many of Utah's emigrant families homesteaded its land with federal grants during the Cleveland administration.

The most recent wrangling on this land use matter involved a 2003 out-of-court settlement when then Governor Leavitt managed to wrest millions of acres from BLM purview and outraged environmental and conservation activists who feared unfettered extraction development. Salazar said of the 2003 settlement, "That should never have happened." Even so, a major development at Snow Basin was made possible by the generous privitization of public lands to Utah tycoon Earl Holding in preparation for the 2002 winter Olympics.

The recent announcement by Secretary Salazar became swift political fodder as Utah's U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch lept to the microphones to say, "I will continue to do everything I can to ensure that... the authority to designate wilderness stays where it belongs -- with Congress." This was purely political grandstanding to those who emphasized that the new designation still acknowledged congress' authority over the wilderness designation, effectively leaving that distinction unchanged. In addition, the BLM management personnel have been charged with the responsibility to include state and local authorities in the development of their management plans under the new policy. This is not a significant change, either.

For instance, with the new "wild lands" distinction, the BLM would have increased discretion regarding the development of roads and trails and even limited energy development or other activities in such areas, even if they "may impair wilderness characteristics." This is not often mentioned by the rabid state's rights people of Utah who many feel have overreacted to the announcement made by Salazar. Their neighbors and friends, working with the federal government, will undoubtedly continue to work with the rest of Utah's population even as they decry this recent action as a federal government "land grab."

Salazar said the new policy is in line with the BLM's multiuse mission of balancing recreational activities, livestock grazing and energy production with wild land conservation and preservation, all of which the state of Utah already enjoys. "Thousands of Americans make their livings from those public land uses," Salazar noted. "Wise stewardship isn't just the right thing to do, it's good for business and it's good for jobs."

Perhaps the Utah politicians have forgotten to include that part of the Secretary's remarks as they whip up a local frenzy over the "erosion of state's rights." The native tribal leaders of Utah have remained silent thus far.