BLM Directive on Wilderness Protection: Implications for Arizona and the West
In 2003, the Bush administration entered into to a hastily-drafted, surprise settlement agreement with the State of Utah, which became known as the “No More Wilderness” policy. That policy broke with history by disavowing the Interior Department’s well-established authority to protect the wilderness character of spectacular landscapes throughout the West. Before 2003, every administration had used its authority under Section 202 of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) to identify “wilderness study areas,” or WSAs, and protect their wilderness character. However, as a result of the 2003 Utah agreement, well-known western icons were at risk from oil and gas drilling and rampant off-road vehicle abuse, including Arizona’s Aravaipa Canyon, Sand Tank Mountains, and Ironwood National Monument.
Under the No More Wilderness policy, wilderness became the only resource which the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was specifically precluded from managing or protecting, and the impacts have been profound. After 2003, with WSAs off the table, the Interior Department auctioned off leases for millions of acres of public lands to oil and gas companies. Additionally, BLM land use plans released late in 2008 included thousands of miles of off-road vehicle trails in areas the BLM had already found to qualify for wilderness protection.
Preserving these last remaining unprotected wilderness-quality lands is particularly important given BLM’s history of neglect of these national treasures. Only 3% of BLM lands are now protected by Congress as Wilderness.
Secretary Salazar’s order will restore needed administrative protective tools to almost 2.5 million acres in Arizona, nearly 6 million acres of wilderness quality land in Utah, 650,000 acres in Colorado, and more than 2 million acres in New Mexico (out of the approximately 256 million acres of surface lands managed by the BLM).
PROTECTION OF LANDS ELIGIBLE FOR WILDERNESS DESIGNATION WILL NOT INTERFERE WITH BALANCED ENERGY DEVELOPMENT
Even if all currently unprotected BLM lands which still qualify for wilderness designation were protected now, the vast majority of BLM lands would still be available for non-wilderness uses. In Arizona, of the 12.2 million acres managed by the BLM, less than 3 million are proposed for wilderness protection outside existing wilderness areas, while the majority of acreage is open to mining and energy development.
Similarly, in Colorado, as of the end of fiscal year 2009, the oil and gas industry held 4.9 million acres of public lands and some 85% of the BLM lands in Colorado are open to oil and gas development. In contrast, only 205,000 acres (or 1.7%) of BLM lands are currently protected as wilderness. Protection of the all of the lands proposed for wilderness in Colorado would increase the amount of protected BLM lands to only 17%, still leaving the vast majority of BLM land open to extractive uses and off-road vehicle recreation.
In Utah, an analysis of BLM’s 2008 resource management plans shows that if lands that the BLM itself identified as eligible for wilderness protection were protected, 86% of the proposed oil and gas wells could still be drilled.
Additionally, the oil and gas industry has millions of acres under lease and thousands of drilling permits that it has simply chosen not to put into production. Through FY 2009, 45,365,695 acres of BLM lands were under lease, yet only 12,842,209 were actually in production. In other words, oil and gas companies now hold leases on over 32.5 million acres of public lands throughout the West that they are not developing. Similarly, in FY 2009 BLM issued 4,487 permits to drill for oil and gas, and industry did not use 1,220 of those permits. See http://wilderness.org/files/BLM-Oil-Gas-Data-Through-FY2009.pdf. It makes little sense to open the Nation’s last remaining wild lands to oil and gas drilling with tens of millions of acres that the industry could be developing right now but are not.
ADDITIONAL WILDERNESS FACTS