Red Rock Canyon, west of Las Vegas, is included in the lands now under the… (Rosemary McClure, For The…)
Restoring a policy abandoned by the George W. Bush administration, the top Interior official on Thursday gave the agency that manages 245 million acres of public land the authority to temporarily protect pristine areas of the West.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who issued the order, called it "a new chapter in terms of how we take care of our Bureau of Land Management lands."
Salazar's directive casts aside a Bush policy that was adopted after an out-of-court settlement between then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton and the state of Utah. Under that agreement, the bureau lost its ability to manage pristine areas in order to preserve their wilderness qualities, pending congressional action. The move potentially opened the lands to energy development and mining.
The bureau will now compile an inventory of "wild lands" and, as part of its public planning process, has the authority to keep them off-limits to development. But the classification can be modified, meaning the lands will not have the same permanent protection as congressionally designated wilderness areas.
In a news conference in Denver, Salazar said the Norton settlement was wrong and "should never have happened."
But he also said the new classification would not lock up the areas, adding that "flexibility" was needed in managing them.
Conservation groups, which were highly critical of the Bush administration policy of opening vast swathes of Western land to oil and gas leasing, praised Salazar's move.
"Millions of acres of unprotected, wilderness-quality lands exist on BLM lands across the West," Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife, said in a statement. "Today's announcement will allow the broad vistas of Colorado's Vermillion Basin, Utah's Valley of the Gods and many other unique and irreplaceable landscapes, which provide habitat for wildlife like sage grouse and pronghorn, to be managed to maintain their wildness."