WASHINGTON — Critics of a controversial "wild lands" order issued late last year by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar are praising what looks like its death because of the last minute federal spending resolution reached Friday.
The budget compromise, which headed off a looming shut down of federal agencies, includes language which specifically prohibits the use of money to pay for the implementation of Secretarial Order No. 3310, which Salazar announced a couple of days prior to Christmas.
The order gives broad latitude to the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management to re-inventory the public lands within its purview for potential wild land characteristics.
Opponents say such designations falls strictly within the power of the U.S. Congress, not agency action, and upends a settlement agreement reached in 2003 by then-Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt and the Interior Department.
Salazar's announcement of Secretarial Order 3310 "blindsided" Gov. Gary Herbert who said such wild land designations run counter to a public, collaborative process that should begin from the ground up, not behind agency doors.
He was joined in his criticism by Utah's congressional delegation, which vehemently opposed the order, which also spurred what is believed to be the nation's first lawsuit challenging its breadth. That lawsuit was filed last month in federal court by Uintah County and the Utah Association of Counties.
That group hailed the defunding of the order in statements released Tuesday.
"UAC's longstanding position is that only Congress can make laws to manage public lands as if they are wilderness," the release said.
"The message from Congress is loud and clear," said Mark Ward, the association's senior policy analyst and public lands counsel. "Don't spend the people's money dictating laws that only we, the Congress can enact."
Environmentalists, however, called defunding the order a step that turns back the clock and makes public lands vulnerable to oil and gas exploration.
"Wilderness has always been and will continue to be an important part of America's public lands," said William H. Meadows, president of The Wilderness Society. "We are very disappointed by the restrictive language regarding the wild lands policy. The fact is that the BLM has a legal obligation to protect America's most sensitive public lands, and we will continue to work to make sure those lands are protected by congressional or administrative decisions."
The federal budget spending plan will also reduce funding to the Central Utah Project. Beyond the $9 million already proposed to be slashed from the water development project's annual allocation, the budget resolution took another $1 million, bringing CUP's overall annual budget down to $32 million.
Such a decrease would significantly impair some timelines related to the CUP's Utah Lake System construction project, which proposes to deliver 30,000 acre feet of water to Salt Lake County and 30,000 acre feet of water to Utah County.
One segment of the northern delivery line to Salt Lake County remains to be finished and would likely not be impacted, said Chris Finlinson, CUP spokesperson.
The southern pipeline to Utah County, however, is still in the design stage and could be significantly delayed.
"If funds continue to be decreased it will make it more difficult," she said.
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