Americans may value democracy and a public process, but they have had little of it through the years when it comes to setting aside and protecting federal lands. From the administration of Theodore Roosevelt, when Congress decided to give dictatorial powers to the president to declare national monuments, to last week's decree by the Interior secretary that the Bureau of Land Management once again can set aside vast tracts as areas as "wild lands," the struggle between development and environmental concerns largely has been a tug-of-war rather than an exercise in reasoned compromise and discussion.
Environmentalists like to point out that federal lands belong to all Americans, but the body that represents all Americans is Congress, not a federal agency within the executive branch. And while Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's new "wild lands" policy still leaves Congress with the final say over which lands receive permanent wilderness designations, it reinstates an administrative process that is likely to lean heavily toward the side of environmentalism and away from extraction and other land uses vital to struggling local economies.
People outside the state, particularly those in the densely populated East, may have trouble appreciating that about 70 percent of Utah is federally owned. Much of this land contains valuable energy sources or minerals. Much of it also contains natural beauty worthy of preservation.
Utahns tend to have a strong love for the land and an understanding of the need to protect their fragile environment. The debate over Snake Valley water near the Nevada border is an example of this. Utah, both officially and on the grass-roots level, has reacted strongly to efforts by Nevada to pump water from beneath the Utah desert, putting soil, vegetation and wildlife at risk. Given the sensible concerns of people who value nature, it's hard to believe a reasonable public process couldn't produce an intelligent compromise over wilderness issues, as it already has in some isolated cases.
Instead, however, Utahns have grown accustomed to the yearly introduction of a bill by New York Rep. Maurice Hinchey, which typically seeks to set aside more than 9 million acres of Utah as protected wilderness and which hasn't had a Utah co-sponsor in years. Utahns had to stand helplessly and watch years ago when President Bill Clinton used those dictatorial powers granted in the Antiquities Act of 1906 to proclaim the creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, covering vast tracts of southern Utah and including land containing huge coal deposits.
In 2003, an agreement between Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt and Interior Secretary Gale Norton took away the agency's power to summarily declare "wild lands" and put it back into the hands of the people. Now Salazar has reversed this.
The Interior Department says it won't define the rules for "wild lands" designation until after a 60-day comment period. Utahns should watch that process closely.
But whatever the new policy, it won't be the final word. That will come when the democratic process leads to a reasonable compromise involving the people most affected by the decision.