Federal and state lawmakers have launched several pieces of legislation to counteract a December order by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar that allows the Bureau of Land Management to grant wilderness-like protection to deserving parcels of land.
The order directs the BLM to include a new "wild lands" designation when it conducts its regular land-use inventories.
Federal legislation introduced by Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, called the Idaho Land Sovereignty Act, would nullify "wilderness" designations made by the BLM unless they are approved by Congress. Gov. Butch Otter said in testimony before the House Committee on Natural Resources on Tuesday that Salazar had overstepped his bounds by allowing an entity other than Congress to create new land-use designations.
However, "wild lands" may not be the same as "wilderness."
Wild, wild West
"Wild lands" is a bureau-specific designation created by Salazar as a way for the BLM to protect land that is found to have wilderness characteristics but has not been designated as wilderness study areas. The bureau's authority to designate such areas expired in 1993.
BLM spokeswoman Heather Feeney said a wild lands designation could only follow an inventory and public input on whether the land's wilderness characteristics should be protected as a priority over other uses.
She said that even if the land is found to be most valuable in terms of its wildness, the BLM still has the ability to allow other uses that would not impair that characteristic, even including some motorized or other limited uses, depending on the land in question.
While only Congress can designate wilderness and only Congress can release it, wild lands designations could be reviewed any time the bureau re-evaluates its inventory of public lands.
Feeney said these evaluations don't always follow a schedule, but they are conducted regularly to keep up with changing conditions.
John Robison, public lands director for the nonprofit Idaho Conservation League, said the wild lands designation is much less restrictive than wilderness designation.
"It's more of a mild lands policy," he said with a laugh. "It's a much more flexible approach, and it's also temporary. In essence, this says that [the BLM] has to look for lands with wilderness characteristics. It doesn't say what they are going to do with them."
The day-to-day management practices between wild lands and wilderness would be similar, Feeney said. However, the process of deciding whether the land should be protected is very different.
"With wilderness, Congress tells us, 'You will manage this,'" she said. "With wild lands, the public has said it."
The inventory of lands with wilderness characteristics that the secretarial order requires the BLM to conduct does not set priorities for use on any given piece of land. The bureau makes that decision after an extensive public process, during which the agency conducts several public meetings and drafts an environmental impact statement outlining several alternatives for land use.
"The whole process rests on public involvement," Feeney said. "We rely on the information we get from public comment and government agencies to make sure we have the complete picture."
That's in stark contrast to a pending Idaho House Joint Memorial that says the state will not support any type of wilderness designation, including wild lands, without "public process."
State Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said she voted against the bill in committee because of its "erroneous premise."
"There is a tremendous amount of discussion [when designating wilderness]," she said, citing the years of public input that Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, garnered when drafting his proposal to create three new wilderness areas under his Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act.
"They're saying it's not enough public dialogue, and I just disagree," she said. "I don't think it operates without public comment."
The road ahead
For the moment, both Labrador's bill and the ones in the state Legislature remain in committee. Stennett said the Legislature will wait to see the results of Labrador's bill before voting on either of the two bills opposing Salazar's order, and there is likely to be no movement on that front until early next week.
Katherine Wutz: email@example.com