Sustainability | Ecotrope

Conservationists' measured stance on wild lands

Ecotrope | June 2, 2011 8:17 a.m. | Updated: Feb. 19, 2013 1:37 p.m.

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Steens Mountains in Eastern Oregon (ODOT)

On philosophical grounds, Northwest conservation advocates are a little bent that the Obama administration is shelving plans to designate as “wild lands” any of the millions of public acres controlled by the Bureau of Land Management.

But as a practical matter, wilderness groups in Oregon, Washington and Idaho don’t expect this latest development to lead to the imminent despoiling of pristine BLM rangelands or forests in their states.

That’s the impression conservation groups in the region’s three states are giving in the wake of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s latest memo, which was made public Wednesday. Salazar wrote he would abide by the will of Congress, which in April stripped funding from Interior’s new program meant to inventory BLM land for possible protection as wild land. From here on, the administration will work with members of Congress to manage undeveloped public land in the West, rather than seek to revive funding for the wild lands program in 2012.

Rick Johnson, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League, said Thursday the policy direction is disappointing, since as a wilderness advocate, he said, “I’m for getting as much protection as I can get” for public land. The Idaho Conservation League was among a diverse group of stakeholders who agreed to a plan that protects Idaho’s Owyhee Canyonlands. Salazar’s order last December to inventory and consider protecting wilderness-quality lands led some to worry the government would go back on portions of that deal, which made clear that other public lands in the area would not be cordoned off as untouchable wilderness. For that reason, Johnson said, he understands why the Republican-controlled House pushed to temporarily defund the effort – and why Salazar is going along for the long haul. “We also recognize that in the West, a deal is a deal,” Johnson said. Overall, the question of protecting pristine BLM land is a much bigger one for such Western states as Utah and Nevada than those in the upper left corner. Washington has very little BLM land that could come into play, says Mitch Friedman of that state’s Conservation Northwest. The Oregon Natural Desert Association’s Brent Fenty said Salazar’s memo puts this and future administrations down the wrong conservation path when it comes to the future of millions of acres of Oregon’s BLM land east of the Cascades. However, he added, such roadless federal lands aren’t at immediate risk of development because they’ve been recently inventoried for their potential to be protected as wild lands.

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