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Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s Dec. 22 announcement directing the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to survey its vast holdings with a view towards determining which should be designated as “wild lands” has sent shock waves across the West.

Salazar’s move is widely seen as the Obama administration’s way of dealing with a new Congress that is unlikely to create new wilderness areas legislatively. The administration is rebranding wilderness as wild lands so it can make millions of acres of public land off-limits to development through regulatory fiat.  Salazar unveiled the plan after Congress had adjourned for the year and before the new, 112th Congress had been sworn in.

Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), who has since become the new chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, blasted the move.  In a statement issued the day after Salazar’s announcement, Hastings said, “This backdoor approach is intended to circumvent both the people who will be directly affected and Congress…The Natural Resources Committee will fully review this decision next year (2011) and its impact on our nation’s economic competitiveness and ability to keep and create jobs.”

One of the first battlegrounds will be Alaska’s energy-rich North Slope.  There, the National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska (NPR-A) is home to as much as 900 million barrels of crude oil and 53 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, according to an October 2010 estimate by the U.S. Geological Survey.  Several environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity and the Wildlife Conservation Society, are already urging the BLM to “protect” large swaths of NPR-A from any energy development.

The 23.5 million-acre NPR-A was designated as an oil reserve in 1923 and was administered by the Defense Department until it was transferred to the Interior Department in 1976.  Its vast energy reserves, like those of the nearby Arctic National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR) remain untapped. In addition to the restrictions on energy production facing Alaska, the wild lands policy is expected to negatively affect drilling, mining, and cattle-grazing throughout the West.  Altogether, the BLM manages 250 million acres of land, 22 million of which already are designated as wilderness.  The National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service also administer wilderness areas.

The prospect that the administration could use its new wild lands policy to further thwart energy development in Alaska has infuriated Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), chairman of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs.  “The extreme environmentalist groups couldn’t get their wilderness bill past Congress and so now they are circumventing this country’s legislative body and having the agencies do their dirty work.”