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Back at the Interior Department Ranch: Salazar Has Some Clean Up to Do in Utah, Too

by Tom Kenworthy

No question, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has his hands full these days with the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster. Holding BP’s feet to the fire and rooting out the oil-soaked culture at the Minerals Management Service is more than a full-time job.

Just months before the Obama administration took office, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management issued a flurry of new 20-year management plans for 11 million acres of federal land in Utah. The six plans opened up about 80 percent of the lands in question to oil and gas development—much of it spectacular red rock canyon country full of archaeological treasures and prized for its wilderness characteristics. (photo by Flickr user Paraflyer) But back at the Interior Department ranch, there are a couple of pieces of unfinished business that he, or someone at his direction, should attend to. Both involve Utah, and both—like the gulf oil mess—have their roots in the previous administration’s cavalier abdication of its responsibility to protect public resources.

Just months before the Obama administration took office, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management issued a flurry of new 20-year management plans for 11 million acres of federal land in Utah. The six plans opened up about 80 percent of the lands in question to oil and gas development—much of it spectacular red rock canyon country full of archaeological treasures and prized for its wilderness characteristics. Some 17,000 miles of trails were designated as routes for off-road vehicles.

If there was any question that the new plans were a giveaway to those who think public lands are for plundering, the answer came immediately as the Bush administration sold oil and gas leases on scores of Utah parcels covering 130,000 acres. The package would have opened areas near some of Utah’s iconic landscapes for energy development, including Arches National Park, Dinosaur National Monument, and Nine Mile Canyon.

Salazar, to his credit, suspended those energy leases. But the underlying problem remains: the management guidance that made this drilling possible. The Obama administration will need to re-do these agreements. It’s a cumbersome and lengthy process to be sure, but one that is necessary if the administration is serious about breaking with its predecessor’s “drill everywhere” philosophy.

The second issue that deserves attention dates to the early days of the Bush administration, when Interior Secretary Gale Norton cut a nefarious deal with Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt that instantly became known as the “no more wilderness policy.” The agreement, settling a lawsuit brought by the state of Utah, removed interim protections for 2.6 million acres of land that the Bureau of Land Management had previously determined had wilderness potential. And even more damaging, Interior relinquished its right to identify “wilderness study areas” and protect them pending decisions by Congress on permanent wilderness protection, a decision with repercussions across millions of acres in the West.

As Robert Redford noted in a Denver Post column a few weeks ago, removing that interim protection often means forever disqualifying lands for permanent wilderness protection by Congress because they no longer qualify under the federal wilderness act once development begins.

“Suddenly,” Redford wrote, “these places were viewed as handouts for the oil and gas industry instead of living landscapes that belong to all Americans. And as soon as the seismic thumper trucks, drill rigs, and natural gas pipelines rolled in, these lands became forever ineligible for preservation.”

The Obama administration backed itself into a corner on reversing the “no more wilderness” agreement when Utah Sen. Robert Bennett put a hold on the nomination of Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes. The Interior Department inexplicably endorsed that pact in written answers to questions Bennett posed about the Norton-Leavitt deal, saying the argument that BLM no longer had the authority to create wilderness study areas was consistent with the federal law governing management of BLM lands.

That written opinion got rid of the hold on Hayes’s nomination, but it also leaves millions of acres of western lands unprotected. As 89 House members said in a November 2009 letter urging Salazar to renounce the Norton-Leavitt deal, “these lands remain at risk.”

Salazar told a House subcommittee in March that he disagrees with the “no more wilderness” settlement and that he is working on a resolution. It’s time to complete that work and issue a secretarial order restoring BLM’s authority to designate potential wilderness areas and protect them pending final decisions by Congress.

Tom Kenworthy is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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