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Wild Lands Policy - A Defense for Wilderness and Righteousness

Bobby McEnaney

Posted March 2, 2011 in Saving Wildlife and Wild Places

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It might not have made many headlines, but on Tuesday, March 01, 2011, the House of Representatives held two oversight hearings of note: a hearing in the Subcommittee on Energy and Power to scrutinize the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Greenhouse Gas Regulations, and two, a hearing in the Natural Resources Committee looking into the Department of Interior’s new “Wild Lands” policy, a process established by the Interior Department to ensure that the millions of acres of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands with wilderness character are properly being managed.  What might have gone relatively unnoticed – but was a contravention of usual congressional business – was the fact that the witnesses representing the administration, EPA Assistant Administrator Gina A. McCarthy and BLM Director Bob Abbey respectively, were not allowed to testify until the very end of their given hearings.  An unusual choice by the majority given that the very point of both of these hearings was to presumably scrutinize administration policy. Worse, it was reported by Politico that the House Natural Resources Committee was not even going to extend an invite to the administration to allow them the opportunity to explain the Wild Lands policy.  If not for a last minute push by the BLM and Hill allies, the administration would have been completely frozen out.     

All of this portends poorly for how environmental issues will be deliberated on the House side.  The notion that the administration would not be allowed an opportunity to speak, or at best, that their testimony would be totally marginalized by the process, is fundamentally disrespectful.  But even beyond the contempt shown for the office of the presidency, there are also practical considerations for allowing administration witnesses to speak early during an oversight hearing.  By making BLM Director Abbey and EPA Assistant Administrator McCarthy testify dead last, committee members chose to monopolize their finite time, not allowing McCarthy and Abbey to get back to their agencies to actually carry out the government’s business.  By their nature, congressional oversight hearings are typically long, drawn out affairs where floor business usually takes precedent, delaying hearings to the late hour or even to the following day.  And during that time, awaiting witnesses are literally captive until they are called to speak.  And talk about being held captive, in the Wild Lands hearing, Director Abbey had been waiting for such a prolonged amount of time to testify, that after four hours he had to publicly receive permission from the Chair to leave to use the restroom – literally.  [In contrast, congressional members do not suffer the same indignity, they are free to come and go at any time during the hearing.]  And if you ever had the pleasure of sticking around for the last panel, there is usually hardly anyone left to share the experience with.  Most committee members are long gone after the first panel concludes, and usually whatever press were in attendance have typically filed their stories already.  Again, this was born out in the Wild Lands hearing: one of the main wire stories covering the hearing had been filed four hours before Dir. Abbey finally got a chance to testify. 

The decision by the House Natural Resources Committee was an effective way to marginalize the administration’s defense.  But the specific issue of that day, the Wild Lands policy, is of particular importance to those who value wilderness.  A little background though…despite being required by law to manage lands with wilderness character to ensure they remain wild and intact until Congress decides otherwise, the George W. Bush administration arbitrarily concluded that the BLM – which oversees over 250 million acres of land primarily in the West – would no longer manage these types of lands as wilderness (see the “No More Wilderness” settlement).  What was a bipartisan policy that had worked for Presidents Carter, Reagan, Clinton and George Herbert Bush, had become a target of Vice President’s Cheney notorious Energy Task Force.  Hence, the Bush administration precluded federal land managers from inventorying wilderness lands while eliminating the public’s role in the process.  In the final years, the administration kicked it up a notch further by also removing the public’s right to appeal final land management decisions.  In lowering the bar so far, the consequences were damming for many iconic Western landscapes.  Wild lands that had no business being host to oil and gas operations were leased for drilling.  

This bungled policy came to a head in 2008, when the BLM office in Utah issued 77 oil & gas leases in some of the most sensitive federal lands to be found in America – by placing leases literally on the backdoor of such treasured areas as Arches National Park (see map).

77_Utah_Oil_and_Gas_Leases_Struck_Down.jpgNRDC and its partners initially sued in successfully blocking the issuance of the leases, and later in one of the first decisions by the administration, Secretary Salazar from the Interior Department rescinded those 77 leases.  But the underlying policy that allowed for such a decision to go forward was still intact in 2010.  With that in mind, the Interior Department issued Secretarial Order 3310 on December 2010 that reinstated the prior status quo by reaffirming BLM’s statutory obligations to consider a process that would conserve qualifying lands with wilderness character.  Furthermore, the restored policy placed a strong premium on public input to inform future management decisions.   

This brings us back to the March 1st Wild Lands hearing in the House Natural Resources Committee.  Maybe the most telling part of the criticisms that were reserved for the administration and their defense of the Wild Lands policy was not for the mechanics of the policy itself, but the fact that the two headliner witnesses – Governor Butch Otter of Idaho and Governor Gary Herbert of Utah – complained that as local officials in the region, they had not been consulted by the Obama administration before Secretarial Order 3310 was issued.  An ironic place and time to utter such a criticism given how the committee was treating Director Abbey’s right to speak.  But as Congressman Martin Heinrich from New Mexico pointed out to the two governors, he did not recall in his capacity as a city council member of Albuquerque, any ‘local officials’ in the West like himself, receiving similar consideration when the Bush administration decided to eliminate the longstanding wilderness protection policy.  Furthermore, when Representative Edward Markey asked Gov. Otter whether he personally protested the lack of transparency when the Bush administration made their arbitrary decision in 2003.  Tellingly, Otter responded, “Of course not — I agreed with it.”   Which really says it all…if the outcome was to one’s liking, process be damned.   

 Go to NRDC's BioGems website to take online action to support the Wild Lands policy.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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