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'Wilderness Study Area' Designations Removed, No Future Wilderness Area Considerations


by Editor

May 11, 2003

Camp4 - Climbing News Archive

Bah, Wilderness! Reopening a Frontier to Development

SEATTLE More than a century after historians declared an end to the American Frontier, the Interior Department made a somewhat similar announcement last month, with no fanfare. On a Friday night, just after Congress had left for spring break, the government said it would no longer consider huge swaths of public land to be wilderness.

The administration declared that it would end reviews of Western landholdings for new wilderness protection. As long as the lands had been under consideration for the American wilderness system, they had temporary protection from development.

With a single order, the Bush administration removed more than 200 million acres from further wilderness study, including caribou stamping ground in Alaska, the red rock canyons and mesas of southern Utah, Case Mountain with its sequoia forests in California and a wall of rainbow-colored rock known as Vermillion Basin in Colorado.

By declaring an end to wild land surveys, the administration ruled out protection of these areas as formal wilderness which, by law, are supposed to be places people can visit but not stay. Now, these areas, managed by the Bureau of Land Management, could be opened to mining, drilling, logging or road-building.

The idea of designating an area as wilderness wild land left as is, for its own sake is an American construct. Artists and writers in the mid-19th century led the charge for wilderness, with Henry David Thoreau arguing from his pond-side home in Concord, Mass., that wilderness sanctuaries were a necessary complement to civilization.

In setting aside the first wildlife refuge in 1903, on Pelican Island in Florida, President Theodore Roosevelt protected a patch of America that is now the smallest of the formally protected lands a mere five acres. And since passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964, 106 million acres have been given the wild lands designation, with more than half of that total in Alaska.

Over the years, the Bureau of Land Management, the nation's biggest landlord, with 262 million acres under its control, has continued to survey its vast holdings, trying to determine whether more land is suitable for wilderness. But the Bush administration says wilderness reviews should have ended 13 years ago, at the close of a study period mandated by Congress. This interpretation is challenged by conservationists who plan to appeal the Bush order in court.

If the Friday night declaration represents the beginning of a broad new land management policy, the Interior Department has not said so. There was not even an announcement of the end of the wilderness reviews on the department's Web site.

Instead, the change came about in a settlement of a 1996 lawsuit filed by the State of Utah against the Interior Department over a reinventory of three million acres conducted by Bruce Babbitt, the interior secretary at the time. Most of the lawsuit had been dismissed and sat dormant until the state amended its complaint in March.

"This does not mean that someday down the road we may still manage some of these lands as wilderness," said Patricia Lynn Scarlett, an assistant interior secretary.

The move follows a consistent pattern in the president's environmental policy: to change the way the land is managed, without changing the law. Whether the issue is allowing snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park or logging in the Pacific Northwest, the course has been to settle lawsuits by opponents of wild land protection, opening up the areas to wide use, without going to Congress to rewrite the rules.

Oil and gas developers and others point out that the Clinton administration did the same thing making broad changes of policy by administrative order but on behalf of an environmental constituency. In their view, wilderness protection amounts to a land grab, putting potential timber or mining areas off limits. They say citizen groups were abusing the law by bringing land surveys to the government, which then managed the land as de facto wilderness. Leaders of some Western states have long complained that wilderness study essentially eliminates the chance to gain any economic value from the land, money that is needed for state coffers.

To many conservationists, the announcement was more than another setback. Wilderness, in the oft-quoted line of the writer Wallace Stegner, is "the geography of hope." To have that geography capped, they argue, has had the same effect on some outdoor lovers as the fencing of the public range had on open-country cattle ranchers. "They are trying to declare, by fiat, that wilderness does not exist," said Heidi McIntosh of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

The interior secretary, Gale A. Norton, said that the policy reflected the administration's attempt to cooperate with local officials and heed concerns of industries that rely on public lands' resources. "The Department of the Interior believes that we should manage these lands in a way that provides the greatest benefit to the public," Ms. Norton wrote in a letter to Senator Robert F. Bennett, Republican of Utah.

In another letter, Ms. Norton said it seemed senseless to consider declaring any more wilderness areas in Alaska because its elected officials are against expanding this protection. But critics say that in California, a majority of elected officials favor more wilderness. And in New Mexico, Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, has asked the government to prevent drilling in 1.8 million acres of the Otero Mesa, an area that has all the qualities of wilderness.

The New Mexico land is the largest contiguous piece of Chihuahuan Desert grassland left in North America, Governor Richardson said. It may be wild, but for now, it can no longer be Wilderness.

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