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Owners of the land

Published June 15, 2011 1:01 am

Locals don't have final say
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Ken Salazar says he wants to get more people involved in designating which of the millions of acres of public land across the country, but mostly in the West, should be protected as wilderness.

When the secretary of the Department of the Interior announced last month that he would back off his earlier decision to let the federal Bureau of Land Management resume its legal authority over designating protection-worthy federal land, he encouraged local governments and state leaders to come up with their own plans.

Now he has requested input from members of Congress. He wants them to make lists of the "crown jewels" in their states, areas worthy of federal protection.

Salazar's efforts are commendable. He seems genuinely interested in hearing from the people who live and make their livings surrounded by national forests, national parks and huge tracts of land managed by the BLM. But the fact is, federal land does not belong to those people or to their local elected officials or even members of their congressional delegations.

Federal land belongs to all Americans. And that reality should not be lost in the discussions about wilderness or wild lands. The BLM is charged with managing multiple uses of most of that land — for grazing, recreation, oil and gas drilling and development of other energy sources. Still, a major part of the agency's mission is to inventory the land belonging to Americans to determine which parcels are so unusual in their scenic, archaeological, recreational, wildlife and watershed values — or simply because they are unique — that they warrant special protection.

Some uses, such as mining and drilling, can spoil the land and exclude other activities that are just as valid and also may have economic value, such as quiet recreation.

Local officials in San Juan, Emery and Piute counties and some Utah congressmen say they are working on wilderness bills, but their plans have not been made public.

Salazar is right to encourage broad participation. But we don't believe he intends to leave decisions up to local leaders. Nor should he. All those folks who are interested in wilderness planning should have a say, including those who want to enjoy public lands in relative solitude. If legislation is written that excludes their voices, it will fall flat.

Federal lands within Utah's borders are still federal lands. They do not belong to Utahns, though we benefit from them in many ways. The future of potential wild lands must be determined by a public vetting by all the people who, after all, still own them.