DENVER The Obama administration has restored U.S. land managers' powers to curb development on vast tracts of America's back country, undoing what conservation groups called a "no more wilderness" policy put in place under President George W. Bush.
U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced on Thursday that the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will again have the authority to set aside large areas of federally owned territory in the West that it deems deserving of wilderness protection.
It would still be up to Congress to decide whether to grant those areas formal wilderness status, putting them permanently off-limits to energy development and other commercial uses.
An official wilderness designation by law prohibits the building of roads or other structures, or any human activities that would alter the natural landscape, such as farming, logging, mining, or oil and gas drilling.
In years past, lands classified by BLM as eligible for such protection were to be protected as de facto wilderness until or unless Congress acted.
But Salazar's new "wild lands" policy gives BLM latitude to allow limited energy development or other activities in such areas, even if they "may impair wilderness characteristics."
"For the last seven years, the BLM -- which manages more land than any other federal agency -- has not had a comprehensive national wilderness policy," Salazar said.
"Americans love the wild places where they hunt, fish, hike and get away from it all, and they expect these lands to be protected wisely on their behalf."
The new policy reverses a 2003 out-of-court settlement by then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton with former Utah Governor Michael Levitt that effectively put millions of acres of public land outside BLM's land management purview.
The deal outraged environmental and conservation activists who feared the decision would open up 2.6 million acres in the American West to unfettered mining and oil and gas development.
"That should never have happened," Salazar said of the agreement.
Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch denounced Thursday's policy shift as a "brazen" attempt by the Obama administration to usurp congressional control of wilderness designations.
"It is time for this administration to put the needs of Utahans and other Americans above those of a few radical special interest groups who want to make the nation's public lands their own personal playgrounds," Hatch said in a statement.
"I will continue to do everything I can to ensure that it does and that the authority to designate wilderness stays where it belongs -- with Congress."
The BLM manages 245 million acres of public lands, mostly in 11 Western states.
Salazar said the new policy is in line with the BLM's multiuse mission of balancing recreational activities, livestock grazing and energy production with wild land conservation and preservation. Thousands of Americans make their livings from those public land uses, he noted.
"Wise stewardship isn't just the right thing to do, it's good for business and it's good for jobs," Salazar said.
(Editing by Steve Gorman)