Congress, Western Officials Protest Salazar’s Wilderness Order

Published March 14, 2011

State officials and Members of Congress representing Western states are protesting efforts by the Obama administration to move large tracts of public lands into a state of limbo through a process the critics say requires approval of Congress.

Leap in Federal Powers
On December 22, 2010, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar issued Secretarial Order 3310 directing the Bureau of Land Management to inventory, designate, and manage federal lands as wilderness. At issue are some 13 million acres of land in western states. The Secretarial Order represents an enormous leap in the powers of the executive branch to control land use, the state officials and congressional representatives say.

Order 3310 requires an inventory of all land under the jurisdiction of local Bureau of Land Management field offices for what is loosely defined “wilderness characteristics.”

The definitions are apparently in the hands of the same people doing the inventories, which has state officials and Members of Congress concerned the federal government could use almost any justification for locking up millions are acres of land in western states and putting them off-limits for a variety of uses.

Congressmen Weigh In
A political firestorm against 3310 has arisen because of the apparent executive power grab and the way the process has been handled by the Obama administration. A group of 48 U.S. Representatives and nine Senators penned a sternly worded letter chastising the inappropriate expansion of the Interior Department’s power through the issuance of 3310 and calling out the administration for concealing from both congressional and public view what they were doing in the order.

The letter argued the Interior Department overstepped its powers, noting, “As you know, the Wilderness Act gives the U.S. Congress—and only the U.S. Congress—the power to designate public lands as protected ‘Wilderness Areas.’ Secretarial Order 3310 appears to be an underhanded attempt by DOI to circumvent Congress and the federal rulemaking process.”

Counties Join Together
The Nevada, Wyoming, and Utah Associations of Counties issued a joint Proposed Resolution to Rescind Department of Interior Secretarial Order 3310. The resolution outlines objections to 3310, stating, “It undermines the established public process for land use planning and expressly violates the intent of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, as only Congress has the authority to designate lands as Wilderness.”

The resolution includes a special section describing the negative impact of the secretarial order on the affected western states. That section reads:

“The active management of America’s Public lands to accommodate beneficial multiple uses is essential to the public health, safety and economic vitality of communities across the United States. Public lands that receive special designations are removed from multiple use and prohibit activities vital to the nation, including mineral exploration and harvesting, ranching, agriculture, energy generation from renewable resources, military training, and most types of recreational activities. Revenues generated from public land support critical state and local government services and loss of such revenues would further cripple the economies of local communities and place unnecessary new burdens on State and local government and school budgets.”

Pamela Gorman ([email protected]) is a former Arizona state senator.