Ken Salazar: Why his "wild lands" policy has the GOP going wild

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar clearly wanted to make a splash when he unveiled his new "wild lands" policy last week--two days before Christmas (slow news week), at a press conference outside the REI flagship store, just a few steps from his old Denver office when he was a U.S. Senator and the biking-kayaking-jogging-punting convergence that is Confluence Park.

Oh, the dreaded symbolism of it all.

Salazar had chosen the epicenter of local outdoor rec junkies to repudiate a Bush-era position on wilderness protection that was itself a repudiation of the so-called "environmental elitism" of the Clinton era. As the setting made clear, the backpackers are back on top, while the drill-baby-drill crowd is out there in the wilderness, gnashing teeth.

The secretarial order Salazar was unveiling seems, at first blush, modest enough. It directs the Bureau of Land Management to consider possible "Wild Lands" designation for certain undeveloped areas and to manage them appropriately.

The BLM's internal process for determining and managing areas with wilderness characteristics has been badly disrupted for the past seven years, ever since a legal settlement between Gale Norton's Department of the Interior and the State of Utah threw out years of wilderness studies and opened up millions of acres of BLM land across the West to possible development. Salazar presented the new policy as an effort to restore "balance" to the BLM's mutifarious mission of exploiting resources and protecting them at the same time.

But the move was quickly denounced by the usual cadre of Republican oil-and-gas boosters--especially in Utah. Rep. Rob Bishop called the announcement "little more than an early Christmas present to the far left extremists who oppose the multiple use of our nation's public lands."

And so the whining begins. It's difficult to say what kind of impact the new policy will have, but given Salazar's centrist approach over the past two years, it's unlikely to be as dramatic as its critics fear. It doesn't automatically lock up any public lands or stall out energy exploration. It doesn't subvert the Congressional process required for actual "wilderness area" designation. What it does is give the BLM something it's lacked since 2003--a process for public input and internal decision-making regarding areas that would seem to merit protection because of their wilderness characteristics.

Salazar has pledged that the process will be transparent and thorough. It most likely will be ponderously bureaucratic, like everything else the BLM does--but it at least provides an avenue for inventorying and assessing fragile or threatened areas that might one day become official "wilderness." Without those first steps, there's no way to get there from here.

The naysayers would rather leave the entire process in the hands of Congress--and its many lobbyists and grandstanders. For proof of how well that works, consider this: in 2009 Congress finally got around to designating 250,000 acres of Rocky Mountain National Park as wilderness, 35 years after the move was first proposed.

And one of the senators who carried that legislation for years had an office around the corner from REI. His name is Ken Salazar.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast