Republicans: Don't Even Think About Conserving Land

Hello TAP readers: I’m Sarah Laskow, a freelance reporter and writer based in New York City. But I’m also an ex-member of the D.C. media corps who’s written about homeland security, money and politics, the environment, and a host of other geeky topics. Thanks for having me.

In the past couple of weeks, Republicans have been complaining extra loudly about the Obama administration’s "wild lands" policy. It's a plan to consider -- just consider -- using some of the millions of acres of public land, held by agencies like the Bureau of Land Management, for conservation. Yesterday, the House Natural Resources Committee held an entire hearing on the issue, and Utah’s new senator, Mike Lee, pressed Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on it during the energy committee’s budget hearing.

Utah, it turns out, is where this whole argument began, back in the 1990s. As The Wilderness Society’s Brad Brooks explained at a hearing:

“Few people realize that the BLM was stripped of their ability to protect wilderness characteristics after a back-door legal settlement occurred in Utah nearly a decade ago. Prior to this time, the BLM had the legal ability to consider wilderness as one of the multiple uses of public lands.”

The story goes that, during the Clinton administration, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt decided to inventory BLM lands in order to determine which ones might qualify for wilderness protection. Millions of acres in Utah, in particular, were affected, and in 1996 the state, then led by three-term governor Michael Leavitt, sued Babbitt over the policy. The Bush administration inherited the case, and the new Interior Secretary, Gale Norton, agreed to settle and gave up her department’s right to use BLM for conservation purposes, even temporarily. A few months later, Leavitt joined the Bush administration as head of the EPA.

What the Interior Department’s talking about now is slightly different than what Babbitt proposed. The new policy would bring conservation back into the mix as one possible use of public land and, as Salazar noted this morning, would not necessarily protect lands permanently. Salazar also argued that the new policy could even help lubricate oil and gas development deals. The “no more wilderness” policy, as the Norton-Leavitt settlement was dubbed, set off environmentalists, who resorted to suing to stop the development of public lands.

This way, Salazar said, “Conservation values are at the table in the same way oil and gas are at the table.” With a voice in the planning of land use, he reasoned, environmentalists would be less likely to sue, or like activist Tim DeChristopher, who’s on trial for disrupting the sale of more than 22,000 acres of BLM to energy interests, interfere with development in less predictable ways.