WASHINGTON — The Bush administration on Friday threw out the handbook used by federal land managers to decide which areas deserve to be protected as wilderness and held that many wilderness areas proposed after 1993 were invalid.
The new policy represents a reversal of the practice, established by the Clinton administration, of encouraging the Bureau of Land Management to assess land for its wilderness qualities before allowing it to be developed for other uses.
The changes could significantly alter how millions of acres of land are treated by land managers across the West and could increase the likelihood that land managers will allow mining, drilling and road building.
The Bush administration made the changes in response to a suit filed last month by the state of Utah. Land managers, according to the suit, had been illegally rejecting projects to drill and mine federal land that had been proposed as wilderness areas under the Clinton administration but never designated for protection by Congress.
Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt said the departments of Interior and Justice approached him to settle the lawsuit because "it was their view that the regulations in question, promulgated by the previous administration, exceeded the law."
Leavitt said the changes agreed to by the Bush administration would take the process of designating wilderness out of the hands of the Bureau of Land Management, where it did not belong, and back into the hands of Congress, where it does. No longer, he said, will parcels of federal land be "managed as de facto wilderness" by the BLM.
Neither Interior Department nor Justice Department officials returned calls to explain the policy changes.
But conservationists were outraged that the Interior Department would make such sweeping changes without seeking public comment.
"What it means is that vast amounts of wilderness-quality lands -- millions and millions of acres worth -- are likely to be degraded by extractive industries, and the BLM is going to allow that to happen," said Jim Angell, an attorney for EarthJustice, an environmental law firm.
"It's a real blow to the wide-open spaces of the West," said Heidi McIntosh, conservation director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, an environmental group. "These are landscapes that Americans really cherish.
"It's going to force the BLM to pretend there is no wilderness out there," McIntosh added. "It will force them to act like what they see with their own eyes doesn't exist."
In 1976, Congress asked the BLM to survey its 261 million acres of land for parcels that qualify for wilderness protection -- areas bigger than 5,000 acres that had been largely untouched by human activities and had interesting scientific features. For areas designated by Congress as wilderness, federal land managers were charged with protecting those qualities forever.
The Clinton administration's Interior Department continued to review BLM land to see whether it met the wilderness criteria, and directed land managers not to allow mineral development, road building or other activities that might spoil the wild land.
But Utah argued that Congress' directive to the agency to conduct wilderness reviews and designate wilderness study areas had expired. In the settlement, the Bush administration agreed that it had expired no later than Oct. 21, 1993.
The central issue in the lawsuit was the fate of about 2.6 million acres of land that the Clinton administration inventoried as potential wilderness areas in the late 1990s.
Utah charged that the BLM had illegally been managing those areas as if they had already been wilderness study areas, stalling or killing many mineral development projects. It argued that until Congress designated these areas as wilderness, the BLM should permit mining, drilling, use by off-road vehicles and other development.
The settlement directs the bureau to stop managing those areas "as if they are or may become" wilderness study areas.
Local and national conservationists argue that if the BLM permits development on these wild lands, they will be disqualified from being designated as wilderness in the future.
"The wilderness landscapes in Utah are being nibbled away by roads, oil and gas drilling, off-road vehicles and mining," McIntosh said. "We're going to wake up tomorrow and say, 'Where did our wilderness go?' "
As part of the settlement, the government also agreed to discard the BLM's 2001 wilderness handbook, which directed land managers how to identify wilderness and protect it pending a congressional decision.
David Alberswerth of the Wilderness Society predicted the settlement would provoke a "world of litigation" from environmental groups.