Wild Lands order raise concern
A secretarial order from Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar on Dec. 23, entitled “Protecting Wilderness Characteristics on Lands Managed by the Bureau of Land Management” has raised the concerns of public lands users across the West, and includes those in Wyoming.
According to the BLM website, the order “restores balance and clarity to the management of public lands by establishing common-sense policy for the protection of backcountry areas where Americans recreate, find solitude and enjoy the wild.”
Secretarial Order 3310 directs the BLM, based on the input of the public and local communities through its existing land management planning process, to designate appropriate areas with wilderness characteristics under its jurisdiction as “Wild Lands” and to manage them to protect their wilderness values.
The BLM has not had any comprehensive national wilderness policy since 2003, when wilderness management guidance in the agency’s handbook was revoked in what the agency refers to as “a controversial out-of-court settlement between then-Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton, the State of Utah and other parties.”
“We thought we had resolved the issue,” says Wyoming State Grazing Board Rangeland Consultant Dick Loper in reference to that settlement. “The settlement said that the BLM has no authority beyond what they had already accomplished to manage any areas for wilderness characteristics.”
Now, says Loper, Salazar wishes to do away with that agreement and return to past-Secretary Babbit’s desire to take another look at BLM lands managed as wilderness.
“One thing we’re learning is that the BLM, under the secretarial order, could exclude one or more multiple uses if they identify any of these areas as potential wild lands,” says Loper. “If the BLM is overcautious, under the new regulations they could say to get rid of grazing if they thought it would have an adverse influence on the land.”
“The criteria for the lands are changing as we speak,” he continues. “The first information said the BLM would use the same criteria used to create Wilderness Study Areas from 1976 to 1983, but there’s no logic in that because all those areas are already designated. Today I can’t tell you exactly what the criteria are, but they’re more flexible and loose than the Wilderness Study Area rules.”
Prior to the Dec. 23 announcement, the Worland BLM office had already begun to include a similar concept in their Resource Management Plan (RMP), which is almost complete and ready to release for public comment.
“It wasn’t called ‘Wild Lands’ at the time, but it’s along the same lines,” says Tori Dietz of the Washakie County Conservation District. “The Worland RMP contains ‘land with wilderness characteristics’ – they weren’t labeled ‘Wild Lands’ at the time, but I’m thinking they’re the same thing now.”
“As specific field offices, we’re still figuring out how this plays into our RMP,” says Sarah Beckwith with the Worland BLM office.
The BLM is mandated it inventory lands that have wilderness characteristics in the RMPs, so the Worland and Cody BLM offices created evaluations on blocks of land in the Big Horn Basin that they said would fall under wilderness characteristics.
“Wild lands first have to be found eligible through an inventory,” says Beckwith. “The Cody and Worland offices updated their inventory of lands with wilderness characteristics in 2010, and 570,000 acres in the Big Horn Basin have wilderness characteristics under the new policy. That sounds like a lot, but it’s just saying that much land could be eligible for a designation. Just because lands have been determined to contain the characteristics doesn’t mean they’ll be designated and managed as wild lands. That is determined through the land use process and the RMP.”
In response to the evaluations, the Big Horn Basin counties hired the consulting firm Ecosystem Research Group to look at aerial photography.
“They found many more man-made structures within those areas that the BLM had not identified, and what we found was that many of the identified lands did not meet the wilderness definition because of things like fences, pipelines, reservoirs and roads,” says Dietz.
To take the findings of the consulting firm one step farther, the counties and conservation districts of the Big Horn Basin have contacted the permittees whose allotments are within or adjacent to the identified areas.
“They are also drawing on the maps to identify some of the structures the consultants couldn’t see, because they know their allotments better than we do. Some of the things out on the land are BLM projects that the BLM hadn’t shown on their maps,” explains Dietz.
However, she adds that the executive order says that fences and roads don’t necessarily matter in the designation – that wilderness can have fence and roads.
“That’s not accurate according to the Wilderness Act,” she says. “They’re supposed to be a place for solitude, where you can go to be alone, and some of these areas don’t have that.”
“Ranchers, conservation districts and my office have recently become more involved with the Worland RMP. We’re trying to help the ranchers whose areas have been identified as possible wild land areas in the land use plan,” says Loper. “We’re trying to get them involved and to contribute more information to the BLM about reservoirs, fences, roads and the type of management on those areas, because that should have an influence on what the BLM says about the designation.”
“According to the Data Quality Act, anytime an agency produces any type of management strategy or inventory, it’s to be accurate, and it wasn’t,” says Dietz. “Right now that’s where we’re at. We’re still getting maps back from permittees, and drawing the structures and roads. When we’re done we’ll digitize it and compile it, then meet with the BLM to talk over the differences in the two inventories.”
“This isn’t based on the RMP anymore, but on quality data, so farther down the road, if there are further restrictions and areas tagged as wilderness, we’ll at least have accurate information to show those places don’t meet the characteristics. That’s not tied to the RMP, although it was the reason it began,” says Dietz.
“We were hoping the Worland RMP would be an anomaly, but with the executive order it’s clear we’ll have to get more involved and get ranchers and conservation districts to become more proactive on land use plans,” says Loper. “It’s very important for ranchers to help us, and to help the BLM identify what’s out there on the land.”
“It seems the push in the last 50 years has been that every time they revise the RMPs they get more restrictive, especially with oil and gas development, on which the counties’ economies rely heavily,” says Dietz. “Our main concern is to manage the lands with multiple uses, and to make sure there’s development and grazing, and to make sure it can be recreated in, because you can’t even take a mountain bike into a wilderness area.”
Loper says his group will work to mitigate or rescind the order, and a late-January letter from the Public Lands Council, NCBA and the American Sheep Industry Association and 20 other groups asked Salazar for the same thing.