WASHINGTON — Republican governors and members of Congress vowed Tuesday to fight an Obama administration plan to make millions of acres of undeveloped land in the West eligible for federal wilderness protection.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, appearing with Idaho Gov. Butch Otter at a hearing before the House Natural Resources Committee, called on the GOP-led panel to "help us right a very real and very damaging wrong."
Herbert said a December order by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was harming rural communities throughout Utah whose economies rely on use of public lands.
"This order hinders rural economic development and hurts key funding sources for Utah's school children," Herbert said, noting that royalties from mineral development are a primary founding sources for Utah schools.
The GOP officials said the plan would circumvent Congress's authority and could be used to declare a vast swath of public land off-limits to oil-and-gas drilling.
Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., said the policy threatens the economy in rural Western states and accused the Obama administration of waging a "war on the West."
Idaho's Otter called the plan "a drastic change in public policy for public lands that was done without public input." He called on Congress to "take back its authority" and block the new policy.
Salazar announced plans in December to reverse a Bush-era policy and make millions of acres of public land again eligible for wilderness protection. The so-called wild lands plan replaces a 2003 policy — dubbed by critics as "No More Wilderness — that opened Western lands to commercial development.
A spokeswoman for Salazar called the new policy a common-sense solution that will help the agency better manage public lands, waters and wildlife.
"As a Westerner himself, Secretary Salazar believes that the wild lands policy is a straightforward, practical approach that restores balance to the management of public lands," spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff said.
The policy by itself does not itself create any wild lands designation, nor does it require that any particular lands be protected, Barkoff said.
Designation as wild land can only be made after public comments and review and does not necessarily prohibit motor vehicle use or the staking of new mining claims, the Bureau of Land Management said in a "fact sheet" issued on the new policy.
"The wild lands policy gives state, local, and tribal governments, communities and the public a strong voice in how we manage backcountry areas for our children, grandchildren and future generations," the statement said.