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Gov't calls for new wilderness protections

Posted: November 11, 2011 - 12:00am

HELENA, Mont. — The Obama administration is calling for 18 new wilderness and conservation area declarations in nine Western states, according to a report released Thursday by the secretary of the Interior that he hopes will result in new legislation from Congress establishing the new land protections.

Most of the areas proposed for new protections are in the West, where the administration previously came under fire for a scuttled proposal to name new land protections as part of a presidential declaration. The administration says the new proposals have “significant local support.”

They include creation of San Juan Islands National Conservation Area in Washington, protections for New Mexico’s Rio Grande del Norte and 16 other sites. The areas have often been under consideration for advanced protection status for years, such as 406,000 acres of wilderness and conservation area proposed for the Sleeping Giant study along the Missouri River’s scenic Holter Lake in Montana.

Bureau of Land Management director Bob Abbey said there is room for more wilderness even as the BLM pushes for more oil, gas and other energy development on its land. The agency pointed out that since 1964, only about 3.5 percent of the land it manages has been so far declared wilderness.

“Resource development and resource protection go hand in hand and, in fact, are part of a proud bipartisan tradition on which I hope Congress will build,” Abbey said.

The proposal is the latest plank in what the administration is calling the America’s Great Outdoor’s initiative.

Representatives from all 50 states were asked to identify specific projects in which the federal government could form partnerships as part of the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative. The conservation plans are meant to protect public land, encourage more people to enjoy the outdoors and bolster employment in tourism and recreation.

Earlier this month, the Interior Department separately released a report identifying 101 high-priority conservation projects, such as an all-season trail system in Alaska’s Denali State Park and the completion of a 32-mile trail through urban areas in central Florida.

Many of those projects had already launched. The Interior Department envisioned helping the state and local groups that had been advancing them.

The Obama administration came under fire last year for an internal memo that identified several areas in the West as potential national monuments. Critics had pointed to that as a sign the administration aimed to unilaterally lock up land from development.

The agency indicated the criticism played a role in picking areas seen as having local support.

The latest plan released Thursday would require congressional approval. But Republican critics were still not impressed and rejected the administration’s claim that the proposals all had significant local support.

“Whether it’s one bill that locks up a million acres or a hundred bills that lock up 1,000 acres each, the end goal is the same. There are places in Montana that deserve protection, but we simply do not need bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., making those decisions,” said U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, of Montana. “Land use decisions should be based on consensus with the local community, not the collaborative efforts of unelected bureaucrats and big money special interest groups.”

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the proposed areas were hand chosen because they have broad support and in some cases support from local Republicans. The agency pointed out that a proposal in Utah is supported by the local county commission.

“The truth is, in the West we have a proud bipartisan tradition of passing land conservation measures like this,” Salazar said.

The agency said that in addition to declaring the wilderness areas, Congress could specify adjoining land-use provisions that make certain continued all-terrain vehicle and snowmobile use is allowed where appropriate.

The agency said it was not able to find consensus in several Western states for new land protections, including Arizona, Wyoming and Alaska.

Other identified areas:

• California: Proposals would expand wilderness in the Beauty Mountain Wilderness Study Area in Riverside and San Diego Counties, expand several desert wilderness sites to the northeast and declare protections for the English Ridge area in the north California’s coastal range.

• Colorado: The proposal expands land protections in the McKenna Peak Wilderness Study Area of the San Juan Mountains, the Castle Peak Wilderness Study Area, the Browns Canyon Wilderness Study Area and the Bull Gulch Wilderness Study Area.

• Idaho: Proposes protections for the Jerry Peak and Jerry Peak West Wilderness Study Areas in the Boulder-White Clouds region of central Idaho.

• Nevada: The Blue Lakes and Alder Creek Wilderness Study Areas of Nevada’s Pine Forest Range, and the Gold Butte area in southeastern Nevada are targeted for protections.

• Oregon: Expands the Wild Rogue Wilderness.

• Utah: Protects the Desolation Canyon Wilderness Study Area, the Westwater Canyon Wilderness Study Area and the Mill Creek Canyon Wilderness Study Area.

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