DENVER Interior Secretary Ken Salazar made a move Thursday to increase protection of backcountry lands, undoing a Bush administration policy that favored energy development.
Salazar issued an order to designate Wild Lands among some of the 245 million acres overseen by the Bureau of Land Management.
The fact is that Americans love wild lands, where they hunt, where they fish, where they hike, where they get away from it all. They expect wild lands to be protected for all people, Salazar said.
The order marks the BLMs first new major policy on wilderness since 2003. One of Salazars predecessors, Gale Norton, settled a lawsuit by steering the BLM away from protection of pristine lands.
The BLM is supposed to manage lands for multiple uses, including recreation, hunting and fishing, wildlife and energy development. Salazar said the new policy puts wilderness traits on par with other uses when BLM officials are deciding how to manage land.
The public and local governments will have a chance to be involved before the BLM designates any tract as Wild Land, said BLM Director Bob Abbey.
The Wild Lands category is short of a wilderness designation, which only Congress can declare. No development or motorized travel is allowed in wilderness areas. But Wild Lands share the same natural traits as wilderness areas, like large, remote tracts or good wildlife habitat.
Local BLM managers will study lands under their control to see if they qualify for the Wild Land designation. Citizens can ask for the designation, as well.
Once a tract is set aside as Wild Land, the BLM will manage it to protect the characteristics that earned the designation.
After seven or eight years of ignoring some of these lands, we are moving forward aggressively to protect them, Abbey said.
Salazars order also directs the BLM to update its inventory of wilderness and backcountry lands.
Salazar said his move shows that the hunting and fishing economy, and the outdoor recreation business, are just as valuable as energy production. He made the point by holding his announcement outside an REI store, an outdoor equipment supplier that was crowded with Christmas shoppers.
Peter Metcalf, the CEO of outdoor equipment company Black Diamond, offered his blessing to the new policy.
The outdoor recreation industry accounts for 6.5 million American jobs, Metcalf said.
Beyond economics, wild lands are an essential part of the American identity, he said.
These landscapes are our Sistine Chapel, Mona Lisa and David, Metcalf said.