The Obama administration has done an about-face on its plan to make millions of acres of undeveloped land in the West eligible for wilderness protection.
On Wednesday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar released a memo that the administration will not designate any of those public lands as “wild lands.” The announcement came in the wake of across-the-board pressure from Congress. Now, Salazar says the administration will work with Congress to develop a new plan for managing the millions of acres of undeveloped land between the Pacific Ocean and the Mississippi River.
This announcement is a reversal from an announcement made in December 2010 that called for 11 million acres to become eligible for protected status. When Salazar made that announcement, he described it as a way to overturn a Bush-era approach that opened up lands in the West to commercial development. But as 2010 turned into 2011, it became clear that the “wild lands” policy was going to have a tough road.
The governors of Utah, Alaska and Wyoming fired the first shot when they filed suit against the Interior department to block the plan. They claimed it would take cash out of states’ hands by eliminating the mineral revenue that could be generated from the protected land. By the time Congress hammered out a last-minute budget deal in the spring of 2011, a provision was added that prevented the Interior Department form spending money to implement the wilderness policy. The reasoning behind that, according to one story, is that Republican lawmakers felt the plan would circumvent Congress’ authority and could be used to declare a “vast swath of public land off limits to oil and gas development.”
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