MOAB — On a cliff overlooking a potential wilderness area in southern Utah's red rock country, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar emphasized the economic value of outdoor recreation and the need for local input for conservation efforts.
It's a message Salazar repeated for about 100 people during an informal town hall at an outdoor outfitter here. While the crowd was relatively quiet, many people left frustrated with the message.
"We've heard the same arguments for wilderness before," said Bill Redd, a former San Juan County Commissioner from Blanding. "But he's a Washington politician ... the four C's of the federal government are communication, cooperation, collaboration and capitulation."
For Salazar, however, reaching out to local officials is a necessary step if he hopes to get any new wilderness areas approved by Congress. That's why he came to Utah on Wednesday and why he will visit New Mexico on Thursday.
Salazar also plans to join other Interior officials on a Thursday conference call to discuss areas that have been recommended as potential wilderness by local and state officials throughout the West.
"We have found a lot of areas where there is significant local support and congressional support," Salazar said.
The recommendations were requested in June after Congress defunded Salazar's so-called "Wild Lands" order, which could have expanded wilderness protections to millions of acres of public lands. That policy overturned a Bush-era approach that opened some Western lands to commercial development and was based, in part, on an agreement with former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt.
The proposal has not been warmly received in the West. Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead has told Salazar his state will not provide any recommendations, while Utah's congressional delegation said in a letter that the vast majority of people in their state "reject the Department's D.C.-centric, one-size-fits-all approach to wilderness designations."
Additionally, Utah has an active lawsuit against the Interior Department because of the Wild Lands order. Alaska and Wyoming have sought to join the lawsuit as long as the order remains on the books.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said he would prefer that Salazar have serious conversations about wilderness designations instead of hosting "staged" events like the town hall meeting in Moab.
Bishop is the chairman of the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands.
"I share the frustration and concern felt by so many Utahans across the state that the current administration seems to care more about its own political agenda than the livelihoods of those affected by their decisions," Bishop said.
Moab was the second of two stops Salazar made in the state — he began the day by speaking at the dedication ceremony for a new visitor's center at Dinosaur National Monument, which straddles the Utah-Colorado border near Vernal. He also briefly met with Utah Gov. Gary Herbert.
"This visitor center and Dinosaur National Monument will once again become the huge economic generator for this part of the state," Salazar said during the ceremony, which The Denver Post reported was attended by tribal chiefs and war veterans.