No more wilderness these three words evoke an emotional response among people with a variety of interests in public lands in Utah and the West.
The much-disputed "no more wilderness" deal made between former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt and former Interior Secretary Gale Norton seven years ago during the George W. Bush era has effectively, and wrongly, put a stop to federal protection of more lands with wilderness qualities.
Now, under the Obama administration, conservationists are dismayed, even angry, that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar seems inclined to uphold the agreement and its barrier to designating more Wilderness Study Areas. On the other side, the possibility of "no more wilderness" is making oil and gas developers and others who view land protection as denial of legal access positively gleeful.
Until 2003 it was accepted by courts, presidents and members of Congress that the Bureau of Land Management had the authority to designate Wilderness Study Areas when public lands were found to have the characteristics outlined in The Wilderness Act of 1964. WSA designation protects the land until Congress designates it wilderness or returns it to unprotected status. A WSA allows multiple uses, including limited motorized vehicle access and grazing, while prohibiting permanent development such as drilling that would make it ineligible for future designation as wilderness.
The Wilderness Act states that U.S. policy is "to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness." In 1976, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act authorized the Bureau of Land Management to continually update its inventory of lands with unique values of "critical environmental concern."
But the 2003 Leavitt/Norton deal compromised those missions.
The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Sierra Club and other environmental groups and individuals contend that the 2003 agreement's interpretation of FLPMA as authorizing only one inventory of wilderness-quality lands, the one completed in 1993, is wrong, unprecedented and unenforceable.
We agree. And we're disappointed that Salazar told Sen. Bob Bennett that the BLM currently has no authority to designate more WSAs.
Salazar can and should overrule the 2003 deal and return to the accepted interpretation of FLPMA. Once our outdoor treasures are irreparably damaged, they cannot be repaired. We must protect them for our children and grandchildren.