Score: Utah 2, BLM Wilderness Protection 0

Dan Rohlf

June 3, 2011

Few things in politics are certain, but it’s a safe bet that Barak Obama will not carry the state of Utah in his 2012 re-election bid. But despite its dismal electoral prospects in the state, the Obama Administration knuckled under to pressure from Utah and other western Republicans this week when Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar did an about-face on the Bureau of Land Management’s “Wild Lands” policy. The policy, announced by the Secretary less than six months ago, allowed BLM to designate specific lands with wilderness characteristics for protection under agency management plans. Specific protections would have been identified in the planning process open to public participation.

The Wild Lands policy filled a gap in BLM’s land management authority created when Gale Norton, one of Salazar’s predecessors during the George W. Bush Administration, entered into a legal settlement with Utah under which BLM agreed to cease designating “wilderness study areas.” WSAs are designated areas on BLM lands found to have wilderness characteristics and managed by the agency “consistent with” wilderness until Congress decides whether to officially designate them as wilderness or “release” them for multiple use management. In December, 2010, Salazar emphasized the settlement “never should have happened” and issued an order allowing BLM to once again administratively designate land to be managed to protect wilderness values through the agency’s planning process.    

Salazar’s move infuriated western Republicans, who promptly attached a provision to April’s budget deal funding the federal government that forbade BLM from spending any money to implement the Wild Lands policy. As usual, the state of Utah was a particularly vocal opponent of the Obama Administration’s bid to resume protecting wilderness values.  

Utah officials were therefore in a celebratory mood this week over Salazar’s backcountry flip-flop. Asserting that federal policy protecting wild areas on BLM land “harmed the Utah economy, prevented job growth, blocked domestic energy development and resulted in less revenue for our state,” Utah Senator Mike Lee applauded the Obama Administration’s retrenchment.

But while bashing wilderness protections makes for great newspaper copy in the Salt Lake City Tribune and scores political points with powerful western extractive industries and motorized recreation enthusiasts, reversing the Wild Lands policy might not be the boon to the economy of Utah and other western states that wilderness opponents claim. According to recent estimates from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, mining and logging employed nearly 11,000 people in Utah as of April 2011, but leisure and hospitality industries employed over 100,000 more than that. (And on a side note, in a state where bashing government is a time-honored tradition, government employment accounted for over 216,000 Utah jobs.)

So in terms of jobs and the state's economy, Senator Lee and his fellow western Republicans should have applauded BLM’s late Wild Lands policy. Actual economic facts show that Utah generates far more revenue when people enjoy the wilderness rather than mine or log it. 

And the Obama Administration should have stuck to its principles. Recycling is great, but not when what’s being recycled is Bush-era environmental policies.

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