New “Wild Lands” battle

Caught flat-footed when the Obama administration’s controversial “wild lands” initiative was defunded under the recent Continuing Resolution (CR), environmental groups are vowing to fight to restore funds to the plan. It won’t be easy.

As part of the budget deal negotiated between the White House and Capitol Hill to fund the government through the end of the current fiscal year, Sept. 30, lawmakers denied the Interior Department any money to implement the wild lands scheme. Unveiled shortly before Christmas last year, the administration’s plan would have allowed the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to designate millions of acres of federal lands in the West as “wild land.” Such a designation would make energy- and mineral-rich lands eligible to be declared wild lands, a move that would make them off-limits to exploration and extraction.

The administration’s move infuriated lawmakers and business leaders from the inter-mountain West, where most of the land in question is located. Some of the lands are known to contain rich deposits of oil, gas, timber, and precious metals, which are seen as the key to economic recovery in the region. What further angered western lawmakers is that, under the Wilderness Act of 1964, only Congress has the power to make wilderness designations. They view the difference between “wilderness” and “wild lands” as one of semantics, not of substance. They got their revenge by quietly inserting a provision in the CR that pulled the funding from the wild lands initiative.

Rep. Michael Simpson, R-Idaho, was the man who put the wild-lands language into the House budget bill. “Only Congress has the authority to create new land designations, and I intend to restore that authority by including this provision in the continuing resolution,” he said in a statement.

Environmentalists were stunned by the development. “We are very disappointed by the very restrictive language regarding the Wild Lands policy,” William Meadows, president of the Wilderness Society, told the Washington Times (April 14). Environmentalists are now meeting with editorial boards and friendly members of Congress in the hope of building support for restoring funding.

Their odds appear long. Soaring gas prices at the pump are leading to renewed calls for increased production of domestic oil. And Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the House subcommittee on public lands, has vowed to keep funding for the wild-lands initiative out of the FY 2012 budget.

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About the Author: Bonner Cohen, Ph. D.

Bonner Cohen, Ph. D.

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D., is a senior policy analyst with CFACT.