The federal government will no longer designate certain public lands in Alaska and other states as “wild lands,” Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced June 1.
The decision could be a victory for those in Alaska who worried that the process would have made it impossible to develop large swaths of resource-rich federal acreage across the state, particularly in the 23 million acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, although the precise impact of the policy reversal on public lands in Alaska remains uncertain.
“The protection of America’s wilderness for hunting, fishing and backcountry recreation should be a unifying issue that mobilizes us to a common purpose,” Salazar said in a prepared statement. “We will focus our effort on building consensus around locally-supported initiatives and working with Members (of Congress) to advance their priorities for wilderness designations in their states and districts. Together, we can advance America’s proud wilderness legacy for future generations.”
The Interior Department now plans to work on a more local level to decide if certain public lands are appropriate for congressional protection under the Wilderness Act.
But the U.S. Bureau of Land Management should still inventory its lands as required by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act and consider wilderness characteristics in its future planning decisions, Salazar wrote in a memo to BLM Director Bob Abbey.
Those planning decisions include a new integrated activity plan for the NPR-A.
“Broadly speaking, we’re going to continue doing resource management planning in accordance with (Federal Land Policy and Management Act) and other applicable authorities,” BLM Spokeswoman Celia Boddington told Petroleum News on June 1.
Local officials cautiousSalazar unveiled the wild lands policy in a Secretarial Order last December, but hit an obstacle in April after Congress refused to fund the Order in its current budget.
Some lawmakers, including the Alaska delegation, accused the federal government of overstepping its authority because only Congress can designate new wilderness areas.
Local officials also pointed to a “no more” provision in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act that limits presidential wilderness designations in Alaska to 5,000 acres. Speaking in Anchorage in January, though, Abbey noted that ANILCA also lets the Secretary of the Interior “identify areas in Alaska which he determines are suitable as wilderness,” and then ask Congress to designate those area as wilderness.
Abbey also noted that there had never been a statewide wilderness inventory in Alaska, a state with more than 87 million acres in federal land, an area larger than New Mexico.
Local officials applauded the reversal, but remained cautious.
“I’m pleased the U.S. Department of the Interior has heard Western states’ concerns and stepped back from its unprecedented attack on states’ resource-based economies,” Gov. Sean Parnell said in a statement. “Although it is too early to say how the Administration will view future land use, we will continue to make the case at every opportunity that resource development can be done responsibly. We will continue to push for drilling access in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, which we have maintained is exempt from federal wild land set asides. And, we will continue to oppose wilderness or other land designations that kill jobs and prevent responsible economic development.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the ranking member of both the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Senate Appropriations Interior and Environment Subcommittee, noted that “both the Senate and the House have been clear that Congress retains sole authority and responsibility to designate lands for inclusion in the National Wilderness System.” “That’s how I believe it should be and I will work to ensure that the current ban on creating wilderness — by any name — unilaterally by the administration is continued in the next budget resolution,” she said in a statement.
Alaska Wilderness League Executive Director Cindy Shogan challenged Salazar for “distancing himself from his own moderate policy,” calling it “irresponsible to leave decisions of our most valuable unprotected areas to the changing whims of politicians” and encouraging the Interior Department “to stand by its original policy and ensure that lands are not only inventoried, but that they are given proper protections, as well.”