On September 29, 2003, the Bush administration issued a national policy guidance preventing the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) from inventorying or protecting wilderness-quality lands. This decision formalizes a court settlement between the Bush Administration and Utah Governor Mike Leavitt. The new directive by the Department of the Interior for its land managers reverses decades of wilderness policy and puts the interests of drilling, mining, logging and road construction ahead of the public interest. This directive is the latest of a number of steps the Bush Administration has taken to weaken protection for America's wilderness areas.
The new directive, in the form of an instruction memorandum, specifically prevents land managers from inventorying and recommending BLM land for wilderness study and designation. The 80,000-acre Sand Tank Mountains in Arizona, recently acquired from the Department of Defense, and the spectacular 38,000-acre Roan Plateau in Colorado (transferred to BLM in 1997) are among the first casualties of this policy change and now officially lose any opportunity for wilderness consideration and protection. BLM's abandonment of protection for wilderness lands outside the Reagan-era wilderness reviews revokes a policy followed by every president since Jimmy Carter.
For nearly three decades, on-the-ground BLM management experts considered the values of wilderness on the same level as other possible land uses -- including development -- and provided the American public an opportunity to have a voice in the use decision.
The guidelines suggest that BLM will have the authority to protect "scenic values," "unfragmented habitat," and restrict ORV use, but the steps the agency must go through essentially preclude any true protection of wilderness-quality lands as wilderness study areas.
The Bush Administration often touts the 22 million acres of wilderness areas and wilderness study areas (WSAs) on its lands as evidence that no more protection of these areas is needed. But that 22 million acres is less than 10 percent of all public lands managed by BLM. In addition, the Interior Department has petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn a lower court decision that permits citizens to hold the Department accountable when it fails to protect wilderness character. The Administration also touts alternate designations such as "Areas of Critical Environmental Concern" or ACECs, as suitable replacements for wilderness. But these areas are often open to destructive uses such as oil and gas drilling, logging or mining. For example, one-third of all ACECs in Colorado have already been leased for drilling.
This formal policy has an immediate effect on wildlands in several states including Colorado where 600,000 acres of public land in the state are withdrawn from future consideration as wilderness. Places like Vermillion Basin are stripped of potential protections by this top-down policy.
In April 2003, the Department of Interior settled a lawsuit with the state of Utah that impacted tens of millions of acres of land in the West managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The backroom deal rescinded interim protections for millions of acres of wilderness-quality lands and reversed the department's long-standing policy to inventory and recommend lands for wilderness designation. Land managers, tasked with planning the use of public land by the BLM, have been without formal guidance on how to implement the profound policy changes resulting from this backdoor deal. In addition, many local BLM staff first learned of the administration's actions through media reports. As part of the settlement, the Bush administration threw out the Wilderness Inventory Handbook, which guided land managers in fairly inventorying wilderness-quality lands and protecting them during BLM land use planning -- as required by the Federal Land Policy Management Act.