Opinion: GOP off the deep on BLM wilderness rules

Hearing highlights ideologically driven Republican agenda

Designation of BLM wilderness lands was at issue in a congressional hearing today. PHOTO COURTESY BOB WICK/BLM.

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — The new Republican House leadership showed once again how they will turn almost every environmental issue into an ideological battleground, using a House committee hearing as a forum for attacking Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s move to consider wilderness protection for some western BLM lands. Click here to read all the written testimony for the hearing.

Instead of a rational land management policy based on public input and the best available science, the GOP’s usual suspects, including Idaho’s C.L “Butch” Otter, Utah Governor Gary R. Hebert and House Natural Resource Committee Chairman Doc Hastings this week turned the issue into a question of local versus federal control at a committee hearing, conveniently forgetting that Salazar was merely restoring a long-standing policy that was abolished under the Bush administration.

I’ll give the Republicans some credit for perseverance — they seem to think that, by repeating their mantras over and over again, they will somehow manage to convince the public that they have a legitimate gripe. But fortunately, the American public is savvy enough to understand what’s really going on.

The Republican leadership is beholden to special interests, as it always has been, and in the case of BLM policy, there’s a lot of oil industry lobbying money in play. The stated fear is that Obama and Salazar want to “lock up” public lands, but they are being disingenuous and misleading. These are public federal lands, not the backyard playground of western rural communities, and they’re best managed according to the reasoned plan that Salazar proposed. That includes identifying tracts that have wilderness qualities, then soliciting input from all stakeholders, local and national, before making a decision.

Here’s an excerpt from Otter’s statement to illustrate the point:

“Without any state or public input, the Interior Department has circumvented the sovereignty of states and the will of the public by shifting from the normal planning processes of the Federal Lands Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) to one that places significant and sweeping authority in the hands of unelected federal bureaucrats.”

Sounds stirring and populist, but it’s just not true. What Salazar’s order does is to establish a formal process for making those decisions, including local stakeholder involvement, but these elected officials have never let the truth get in the way of a good ideological argument, especially if it gives them a chance to grandstand for their constituencies.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert chose a similar approach, calling on the Obama administration to “to undue the damage that is being done by Secretarial Order 3310 … We call upon you to help us right a very real and very damaging wrong.”

Apparently, spelling isn’t a priority when the feds are trampling on states’s rights.

Herbert then proceeded to play the GOP’s ace-in-the-hole — its supposed empathy for the working class, jobs and gasoline prices — claiming that oil and gas companies will likely be curbing their activities in Utah.

It may come as a surprise to Herbert, but a majority of Americans would favor a slowdown of drilling activities in pristine wilderness areas.

Not only that, but Herbert claims Salazar’s wilderness order is anti-education:

“This Order hinders rural economic development and hurts key funding sources for Utah’s school children. It also hinders our State’s ability to develop a long-term, sound energy plan. It hinders the ability of all public lands states to develop their natural resources. And this action serves not to benefit any one group, but to endanger the safety and economic well-being of our entire nation and we are forced to depend upon foreign sources for our fuel … By bureaucratic fiat, one branch of the government has overstepped and overreached and has devalued the rights of the states and the citizens.”

Black Diamond CEO and president Peter Metcalf countered Herbert’s ideological rant with some economic facts, explaining that the outdoor industry contributes $730 billion to the U.S. economy each year. Here’s an excerpt:

“I believe there is room for all of us. Utah has 22.9 million acres of BLM lands. Of these lands, approximately 260,000 are designated Wilderness and 3.2 million are Wilderness Study Areas. Five million acres of BLM lands are under lease to the oil and gas industry; only one million of these leased lands are under production.

“There is a reason why Utah’s license plates feature Delicate Arch and not an oil rig,” Metcalf said. “The outdoor industry’s global brand is built upon America’s iconic and unique wild lands and wilderness—natural resources that are recognized and respected around the globe … You cannot copy in China what we, the American people, have had the wisdom to preserve here, nor can you do it more cheaply in Bangladesh.

“We need to replace the “jobs vs. conservation” debate of today, with a “jobs vs. jobs” discussion- – one that is about the type of jobs; the long-term sustainability of those jobs; their contributions to the health of a community and society; economic balance; and about what sort of economic, natural, and societal legacies we want to leave our children.”

BLM director Bob Abbey summed it up best in his statement: “However, multiple-use does not mean every use on every acre.”


6 thoughts on “Opinion: GOP off the deep on BLM wilderness rules

  1. This article is the worst sort of spin on a corrupted government process. Secretary Salazar has in no way merely re-instituted a prior decision. He has introduced a policy that completely circumvents existing law (the Wilderness Act of 1964) and eliminates due process by seeking to establish wilderness areas without the letter or the intent of law. Only Congress can establish lands as wilderness, not the Secretary of an ineffective department that cannot even prevent major disasters in the Gulf of Mexico. This is a smokescreen to hide incompetence and malfeasance of the highest order.

    1. Respectfully, Mark, that just isn’t true. This simply reinstates a policy used by the BLM until the Bush administration caved to state pressure by settling a lawsuit in Utah.

  2. I heard the testimony. The Republicans seemed to be saying wilderness was a one-shot deal — if the area didn’t qualify in 1980, it could never again be inventoried for wilderness. They don’t say that for oil and gas, they don’t say it for offroad vehicles, they don’t say it for grazing. I believe BLM has to consider all resources and come to reasoned conclusions about the best combination of uses in each era. We shouldn’t be ruling out one resource just because we don’t like it.

    1. I just would like it if the politicians let land managers do their job. We need a sustainable natural resource policy, and the best way to achieve that is to let professionals make decisions based on best available science, not based on short-term economic or social pressures.

  3. Thanks for getting to the bottom of things and not just reporting what others say!

    Although the oil and gas industry and their allies have criticized Obama Administration policies for allegedly restricting the industry’s access to federal lands for drilling, new information released by the BLM indicates that the oil and gas industry controls 41,186,158 acres of federal onshore lands, but has drilling operations on just 12,205,416 acres of these leases.

    In other words, the oil and gas industry is sitting on over 29 million acres of unused federal oil and gas leases, an area the size of the State of Tennessee. By contrast, the BLM administers only 8.6 million acres of designated Wilderness on the 245 million acres it manages.

    In addition, the new data indicates that although the BLM issued over 4,000 drilling permits in FY 2010, the industry drilled only 1,480 new wells, using less than 30% of the permits they received from the BLM.

    And these are just public lands. The majority of oil ans gas development occurs on private lands.


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