Update July 20, 2011: Unfortunately, the Wild Lands rider was accepted into law for fiscal year 2011 (see posting: Wilderness Lost). And like cockroaches, once a rider finds their way into one spending package, they prove very difficult to eradicate by reappearing in successive spending packages again and again. This is the case in the 2012 Interior Appropriations spending package, which has the same anti-Wild Lands rider in the proposed packaged as introduced by Wyoming Republican Rep. Cynthia Lummis. The timing is different, but the circumstances are the same: a select group of Republicans and the Big Oil interests that back them, are showing their near contempt for wilderness.
While reeling from news that the budget deal proposes to gut protections for wolves in the Rocky Mountains, we learned that the package also has it out for wilderness. Buried in the 2011 budget deal is language that prevents the Department of Interior from managing wilderness lands in their charge. The language does not look like much on its surface, but the following four lines posted below (found on pg. 304 of the bill) could seal the fate of millions of acres of wilderness found on western lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM):
SEC. 1769. For the fiscal year ending September 30,2011, none of the funds made available by this division or any other Act may be used to implement, administer, or enforce Secretarial Order No. 3310 issued by the Secretary of the Interior on December 22, 2010.
This Congressional rider basically prevents the BLM from enforcing a December 2010 order signed by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar that reaffirmed BLM’s legal obligation to protect wilderness lands that otherwise do not enjoy permanent protection (as bestowed by an act of Congress).
But first some clarification: the wilderness lands in question – also known as wild lands – exist in an administrative limbo: they are not permanently protected by Congress (in contrast to designated wilderness), but Congress also requires these wild lands to be managed as wilderness in perpetuity until there is a congressional decision to protect them (or not). The process which conserved the wilderness status of these wild lands had worked, without controversy, for decades. That was until the Bush administration came along. As discussed in a previous post, the Bush administration chose to ignore the letter of the law that governed these wild lands by actively partnering with oil companies to open many of these parcels of wilderness for oil and gas drilling. What we witnessed was an unprecedented excursion by Big Oil in opening these pristine areas for drilling.
In essence, Sec. Salazar’s decision to protect these wild lands was simply to reinstate the prior status quo and bring the BLM back into compliance with its organic charter, which is to safeguard these wilderness lands for future generations. But with their heads stuck way deep into the honey pot, Big Oil and their Congressional backers are clearly unwilling to dislodge themselves from their sweet meal ticket. This is evidenced by the budget deal, where Big Oil’s Republican (and some Democratic) allies have demonstrated that they are all too willing to push their ideological attack on western lands by using the budget as a vehicle to reinstate opportunities to drill for oil and gas in these pristine wilderness areas. To put the wild lands policy into perspective, in the Rocky Mountain West, 42% of BLM land in the region is already leased to oil and gas companies, nearly 30 million acres. In contrast, less than 1% of these BLM lands are designated as wilderness – a paltry 639,250 acres. In between those two figures, there are approximately 17 million acres of wild lands with wilderness character, lands that do not enjoy permanent protection. The negotiated budget deal would put these millions of acres in jeopardy.
In the last few years, the balance has swung too far toward the interests of the oil companies, and now the budget deal blocks any swing back to sensible policy. To borrow the old yarn, ‘buy land, because they aren't making any more of it,’ – the same holds true for wilderness – it is up to us to protect these places, because once wilderness is lost, it won’t be coming back. There is a lot of talk about encouraging American innovation in these difficult times, but the idea of protecting wilderness is truly one of America’s greatest inventions. This vision has been championed across the political spectrum and that courage is needed more than ever in stopping this rider from becoming a permanent part of the budget landscape. These are the last best places America has to offer, and if these lands do not deserve protection, then what does?