Republican governors say a new Department of the Interior policy that gives the federal government greater authority to protect wilderness areas will slow development and job growth in their states at a time they need it most.
Idaho Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter and Utah Governor Gary Herbert testified before the House Natural Resources Committee Tuesday, offering pointed criticisms of the plan. Otter said the policy would have a "chilling effect" on development in his state, while Herbert said companies that specialize in oil and natural gas exploration have already indicated they're slowing projects in Utah because of uncertainty about the new regulations. "The lack of this new investment means not only a loss of jobs for Utah ... but also a loss of natural resources that only fuels the nation's dependence on fuels from foreign countries," Herbert testified. Eleven million square miles of land in Idaho fall under the Bureau of Land Management's authority, as do 22 million square miles of Utah land. The governors, as well as Republicans on the House committee, are fighting BLM's new "Wild Lands" policy, which would expand its authority over the 245 million acres of land it oversees, which is primarily located in western states and Alaska. The policy would allow BLM to extend a special designation that would protect certain lands with "wilderness characteristics," without having to receive Congressional approval. It essentially ends a settlement reached in 2003 between the state of Utah and then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton, which ended similar authority. "Lands with wilderness characteristics are valued for their outstanding recreational opportunities .... as well as for their important scientific, cultural, and historic contributions," BLM Director Bob Abbey said in his written testimony defending the plan. "Failing to consider protecting these wild places would undermine the careful balance in management mandated by law, a balance that we need on our public land." But the policy further heightens the tension between the federal government and western states, where land ownership has been a thorny issue. Huge swaths of the west are owned by the federal government, including 57 percent of the land in Utah. Last year, tensions grew so severe that Herbert signed a bill that authorized Utah to use eminent domain to claim federally owned land in his state. Democrats say BLM's efforts will preserve pristine land so it can be enjoyed by future generations, and it will also aid the tourism industry in western states, which is largely based on access to areas of natural beauty. But Republicans say the administration is seeking to make an end-run around Congress which has the authority to make protection designations. Herbert called the BLM policy a "job killer" and urged BLM to take a more nuanced approach, arguing that its lands can support both outdoor recreation as well as industrial and energy uses. After the policy was announced Dec. 23, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar insisted that it does not "lock up" land permanently. Abbey testified that the policy directs his agency to collaborate with local communities on managing public lands and does not dictate the results of that planning process. The first step now for BLM is to compile an inventory of land that is deemed to have "wilderness characteristics." The second is deciding how those areas should be managed, which Abbey insists is an "open, public process." Abbey also insisted the policy won't have a detrimental effect on local economies, and he insinuated that energy companies are not taking full advantage of land to which they already have access. BLM manages more than 41 million acres of oil and gas leases -- but less than 30 percent of that land is used for energy production. Yet Otter, of Idaho, said he fears that energy companies that have already invested millions of dollars in projects already under way -- such as the China Mountain Wind Project, the Gateway West Transmission Line Project, and the Boardman to Hemingway Transmission Line Project --- could be in jeopardy. "There is no indication these projects would be spared from the potential impacts of this order," Otter said. Both governors said they were disappointed they weren't consulted before the policy was announced. Otter urged the legislators to "take back" their authority and end the government's "lands of no use and no access" policy. "These are not lands of no uses," said Rep. Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat, said in response to Otter's call. Heinrich, a former wilderness guide, said outdoors tourism should be protected because it "generate(s) enormous sums of income for people who have very real jobs and provide well for their families."