SEATTLE - Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has announced that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) can and should consider an area's wilderness value along with other potential uses. The BLM manages more land than any other federal agency, and the policy change is drawing criticism from Washington Congressman Doc Hastings (R - Dist. 4) and other Republicans.
The Interior Department says the BLM should be able to protect some federal land as "wild," even if Congress has not voted to designate it as "Wilderness." Hastings claims the department is bypassing Congress and finding ways to limit commercial uses and off-road activity.
However, Tom Uniak, conservation director for the Washington Wilderness Coalition, says the BLM had this power for years, until it was curtailed in 2003 under the Bush administration.
"It will restore BLM's ability to look at their landscape as multiple use; not just about drilling and other extractive resources but also about protecting the parts of their landscape that do have these wilderness qualities, which actually are becoming rarer and rarer."
Uniak says sites like Little Patos Island on the coast and the Chopaka Mountain area in eastern Washington will benefit from temporary protection while Congress decides whether to permanently protect them - a process that often takes years.
Mike Matz, who heads the Pew Campaign for America's Wilderness, says Congress' role hasn't changed. And he thinks this will give local BLM districts, and citizens, more say in how the public land in their area is used.
"This is not 'top down' at all; this is coming from the bottom up here. This is district by district, region by region, state by state. At every step of the way, local folks are given the opportunity to participate in the process."
Rep. Hastings promises a full review of the policy change in his House Natural Resources Committee. He thinks it allows the BLM too much power to limit what he calls "energy-producing activities."