The new direction, outlined by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, sounds much like the process that has been underway in San Juan County to develop land use proposals.
San Juan County began a process in the past two years, under the watchful care of Utah Senator Robert Bennett, to develop a land use proposal for the millions of acres of local land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
The process was to invite all interested parties to the negotiating table and develop a locally-initiated wilderness proposal. The Wilderness Society, a national wilderness advocacy group, has represented pro-wilderness sentiments in the process.
A similar process resulted in the development of a Washington County Land Use Bill that was signed into law in 2009.
The process to develop a land use proposal has continued to advance, despite the fact that Bennett was defeated in a re-election bid and the federal government announced a separate Wild Lands Initiative.
In recent months, the Wild Lands Initiative was defunded by Congress and abandoned by the Department of the Interior.
Salazar recently asked Members of Congress for their ideas of “crown jewel” areas of public lands that have strong local support for permanent protection as wilderness under the Wilderness Act.
Salazar said he will deliver to Congress, by October 15, 2011, a list of areas overseen by the BLM that he believes are ready for immediate wilderness designation by Congress.
Local officials seem hopeful that the new direction by the federal government will help the San Juan County Land Use proposal, but expressed skepticism that the bipartisan effort will result in a resolution of the BLM wilderness issue that has raged for three decades.
Utah Governor Gary R. Herbert has issued the following statement in response to the BLM announcement that it will not designate any lands as “Wild Lands”:
“This is a win for Utah’s county by county process, which has proven successful in identifying wilderness. I have defended Utah’s process in my multiple conversations with Secretary Salazar and Deputy Hayes, so I am pleased they are listening. This may be a step in the right direction, but Utah will remain vigilant and engaged on this critical front.”
Bennett expressed hope that the local proposal will be introduced to Congress in coming months. The initial hearings will be held in the House Committee chaired by Utah Representative Rob Bishop.