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Ken Salazar's "wild lands" push riles the Club 20 crowd

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It's been less than two months since Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar was in Denver unveiling his "Wild Lands" program, a sharp poke in the eye to Bush-era wilderness policy, and the reception since has been passionate -- and divided.

Among environmentalists, the reviews amount to an enthusiastic thumbs up. And that wet, derisive sound you hear is a big raspberry from Colorado's Western Slope energy interests.

The new initiative directs the Bureau of Land Management to consider possible "wild lands" designation for certain undeveloped areas and to manage them appropriately. Salazar has characterized it as a needed move to restore "balance" to BLM's internal review of its inventory of public lands, in the wake of Bush-era maneuvers that threw out years of wilderness studies and opened up millions of acres across the West to potential development.

Conservation interests have hailed the measure as bringing more transparency and public input into BLM's assessment of land with wilderness characteristics. But to folks worried about the jobs and profits produced by oil and gas leases on BLM land, the move smells like an "underhanded attempt to create wilderness" -- pretty sneaky, if you think about it.

That blast comes from Kathy Hall, a former chairwoman of Club 20, the influential Western Slope gathering of business interests. Hall was quoted in an intriguing account in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel of a recent Club 20 gathering. Nobody there had much good to say about the criteria the DOI uses to define what makes for a possible "wild land," which includes everything from being pristine habitat for wildlife to offering scenic views and occasions for solitary contemplation.

"What does that crap have to do with anything?" one rancher at the meeting asked.

Hmmm. A bit abrupt, but succinct all the same. Solitude, reflection, nature as a mirror to the soul or as a mystery to be studied in awe and wonder -- all that fancy-pants mooning around might be fine for Mr. Henry David Thoreau and his effete backpacker devotees, but who has time for such crap if you're out in the back of beyond, punching cows or drilling holes in the ground to make a living? And there you have the basic divide between the Salazarians and the Club 20 types.

It's not quite that simple, of course. The wild lands program doesn't create wilderness -- only Congress can do that -- and Salazar is hardly the savior of the environmental movement. (Just ask his critics on the left about, oh, the BP oil spill.) And some ranchers even see the value in BLM protecting its more fragile and remote areas while making more accessible lands available to grazing and drilling interests.

They're just not likely to be speaking out at Club 20 lemon sessions. Read Alan Prendergast's "The Zen of Ken," on Ken Salazar's early performance as Secretary of the Interior, here.

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