(as published in the Albuquerque Journal , 3/4/2011)

Wild Lands Policy Returns to Sense

By Bob Abbey
Director, Bureau of Land Management

As I testified before members of Congress this week at a hearing on Capitol Hill, Americans love the wild places where they hike, fish, hunt or just take a break from their busy lives, and they expect these lands to be managed wisely on their behalf. 

At the end of last year, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar laid out a common-sense approach to managing these special places with his Wild Lands policy, established by Secretarial Order 3310. 

The policy restores balance and clarity to the management of our public lands by providing for a clear, open process for local communities, states, tribes, the public and stakeholders to help determine how to manage Western lands with wilderness characteristics. 

The Wild Lands policy doesn't change the management of a single acre of public land. It simply clarifies how the Bureau of Land Management should manage the public lands for all of the values and multiple uses for which it is responsible, from energy development to recreation and backcountry protection. 

It also provides practical and much-needed BLM guidance for identifying and managing lands with wilderness characteristics. BLM has not had this comprehensive guidance since it was revoked in 2003 as a result of a controversial out-of court settlement between then-Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton, the state of Utah, and other parties. 

Affirming the BLM's ability to work with the public to protect lands with wilderness characteristics is not just a common sense step, but it also makes sound economic sense. Last year, hunting, fishing, and other recreational uses of BLM lands generated $7.4 billion for local economies throughout the West. 

Conservation must be — and should be — on the table when making decisions about our public lands. It's what the American people expect, and it's also what the law requires. 

The Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which guides the management of 250 million acres of Western lands, states that — along with energy production, grazing and other uses — the preservation and protection of lands in their natural condition are part of the BLM's mission. The act directs the BLM to maintain an inventory of the public lands and their resources and other values, which includes wilderness values. 

The Wild Lands policy provides comprehensive guidance for the BLM on how to uphold its management responsibilities under the law. 

To be clear — and contrary to some claims — the Wild Lands policy does not designate land as wilderness. Only Congress can do that. Nor does it designate wilderness study areas. 

The Wild Lands policy simply creates more options for the public as they participate in the BLM's normal land management planning process. Now, local communities, states, tribes and stakeholders can recommend that appropriate areas of their public lands be managed to protect their wilderness values. Unlike congressionally mandated wilderness areas, the management of these "Wild Lands" can be adjusted or modified over time through new planning processes based on new needs and changing realities. The new "Wild Lands" designation, I believe, will prove to be an important tool and resource for local communities that rely on tourism, energy production, fishing, hunting and recreation for their livelihood. 

Wilderness values have long been — and continue to be — a high priority for the American people, and that priority should be reflected in the BLM's policies. With the Wild Lands policy, we are returning to the balanced, common-sense approach to land management that the public expects.