WASHINGTON — A last-minute budget deal reached by Congressional leaders would block an Obama administration plan to make millions of acres of undeveloped land in the West eligible for federal wilderness protection.
Republican lawmakers had complained that the wilderness 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.
An agreement reached Friday night to avoid a government shutdown includes language that prohibits the Interior Department from spending money to implement the wilderness policy
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the plan in December, reversing a Bush-era policy that opened millions of acres of Western lands to commercial development. The so-called "wild lands" policy would restore eligibility for wilderness protection to millions of acres of public lands.
Salazar calls the new policy a common-sense solution that would help the agency better manage public lands, waters and wildlife, but critics accused him of a land-grab that would lock up millions of prime acres in the West.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said the policy would "destroy thousands of jobs ... and create a paralyzing uncertainty for Western communities." Elected officials throughout the West have called for the plan to be halted, Bishop said.
"The longer this initiative has been out in the public, the more concerns I hear about the impact it will have on ranching, energy production, recreation and even the Bureau of Land Management's own ability to manage their lands," said Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho.
The initiative oversteps the Interior Department's authority, Simpson said, adding: "Only Congress has the authority to create new land designations."
A spokeswoman for Salazar declined to comment Tuesday. But in a statement last month the agency said that as a Westerner himself and a former Colorado senator, Salazar believes the wild lands policy is a practical approach that restores balance to the management of public lands.
The plan has drawn support from conservation groups and recreation business owners, who say conservation of public lands is good business. The groups cite the impact of tourism on Western economies.
The new policy by itself does not itself create any wild lands designation, nor does it require that any particular lands be protected, said Bob Abbey, director of the Bureau of Land Management. 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, Abbey said.
Planning for the new policy has already begun, and Abbey said last month that designation of the first wild lands could occur as soon as this summer in Idaho, Wyoming and Alaska. It was unclear Tuesday if those designations would go forward.
The House is expected to take up the budget agreement as soon as Thursday.