The new policy turns back a 2003 policy decision that stated that the BLM could not administratively designate more wilderness.
A number of elected officials in Utah voiced their opposition to the new policy. They state that Utah prefers a Congressional solution, such as the process that resulted in the designation of wilderness in Washington County.
The Washington County process sought input from a wide variety of interests, both pro-wilderness and pro-development, and reached a compromise solution.
In 2010, the Washington County model was being followed in an attempt to solve wilderness issues in San Juan County. The process fell apart when Senator Robert Bennett was defeated in a re-election bid.
San Juan County officials have stated that the new Senator from Utah, Mike Lee, has shown no interest in wilderness issues in San Juan County.
Utah Governor Gary Herbert expressed concern that the new policy could undermine efforts made in Utah to protect the land.
Governor Herbert said, “State officials were not notified of the Department’s intent, nor were we offered an opportunity to discuss it with Interior officials beforehand, which strikes me as political posturing.”
The Governor’s Balanced Resource Council, led by Governor Herbert’s environmental advisor Ted Wilson, has been working with local governments, environmental groups, concerned citizens and others on wilderness designation throughout the State.
“This decision may unintentionally damage all of the good will that we have worked so hard to build between the State, local governments, the environmental community and federal officials,” said Herbert.
“The ironic fallout of this decision is that it could stifle our ability to resolve wilderness issues through cooperation and compromise, like we saw in Washington County and are beginning to see throughout the State,” said Herbert.
Senator Hatch called the new policy “a brazen attempt to kowtow to radical environmentalist groups by locking up more public lands in Utah and other states.”
Hatch said the policy change is an Obama administration attempt to do an end run around the 2003 agreement that requires the federal government to get congressional approval for wilderness designations.
Hatch said, “Changing the wildlands-designation policy will destroy the balance and clarity that comes from allowing Congress to work with the public to develop and pass land-use bills.
“For decades, radical environmental elitists have used the courts to skirt Congress and the normal public process with respect to public lands,” the senator continued. “It looks like Secretary Salazar is trying to outdo them. When the Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument was created in secret, I called it the ‘Mother of all Land Grabs.’ This move by Secretary Salazar dwarfs that.”
The wilderness designation of BLM lands in Utah has been in a state of flux for decades as the US Congress has been unable to definitively settle the argument of how much land should receive special wilderness designation.
Because Congress has been unable to solve the problem, much of the battle of wilderness has taken place through the defacto designation of wilderness by administrative action rather than through elected officials.
Utah currently has about three million acres of BLM land that is designated as wilderness study area. A number of environmental groups advocate the designation of up to nine million acres, including more than one million acres in San Juan County alone.