WASHINGTON — Much to the criticism of Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and to the praise of environmentalists, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Thursday directed the Bureau of Land Management to begin inventorying public lands with "wilderness" characteristics.

A Secretarial Order issued by Salazar is intended to fill in the policy gaps he says were created with a 2003 out-of-court settlement between then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton and the state of Utah, as well as others. The settlement resulted in the revocation of the BLM's wilderness management guidance.

BLM director Bob Abbey said the new order fills an "open land management need," for the public and the agency.

"We are charting a new course for balanced land management, which allows the BLM to take into account all of the resources for which it is responsible through a transparent, public land use planning process," Abbey said.

But Hatch called the move "a brazen attempt to kowtow to radical environmentalist groups by locking up more public lands in Utah and other states."

He said the policy change does an end-run around the settlement agreement, which requires the federal government to get congressional approval for wilderness designations.

"The decision to withdraw from the agreement is an insult to the people of Utah. Changing the wildlands-designation policy will destroy the balance and clarity that comes from allowing Congress to work with the public to develop and pass land-use bills," he said.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert questioned the order's timing and said it could undermine Utah's efforts to balance public land use.

"The timing of this decision is suspect, coming the day before Christmas Eve," Herbert said. "State officials were not notified of the Department's intent, nor were we offered an opportunity to discuss it with Interior officials beforehand, which strikes me as political posturing."

The Governor's Balanced Resource Council, led by Herbert's environmental advisor, Ted Wilson, has been working with local governments, environmental groups, concerned citizens and others on wilderness designation throughout the state.

"This decision may unintentionally damage all of the good will that we have worked so hard to build between the state, local governments, the environmental community and federal officials," Herbert said.

The governor expressed his concerns Thursday in a phone call to Abbey and invited him to sit down with Utah policy makers next month and explain the department's intent for the new rules and their consequences.

"The ironic fallout of this decision is that it could stifle our ability to resolve wilderness issues through cooperation and compromise, like we saw in Washington County and are beginning to see throughout the state," Herbert said.

Abbey said "wild lands" designations will be designated through a public process and such a designation will require the agency to manage the lands with protections of those characteristics.

"The new Wild Lands policy affirms the BLM's authorities under the law — and our responsibility to the American people — to protect the wilderness characteristics of the lands we oversee as part of our multiple use mission," he added.

But Hatch said the policy shift is so egregious that it even outdoes the 1996 decision by then-President Bill Clinton to create the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, which locked up millions of acres.

"When the Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument was created in secret, I called it the 'Mother of All Land Grabs.' This move by Secretary Salazar dwarfs that."

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The Wilderness Society, however, hailed the new policy and said that ever since the settlement was reached, there has been widespread "confusion" among BLM and National Park Service employees about how, or even whether, the BLM should be evaluating and managing public lands with wilderness values.

"This policy recognizes the BLM's statutory obligation to protect the natural qualities of lands in its stewardship, and gives stakeholders their rightful place in the process," said William H. Meadows, president of the organization.

Before the policy is finalized and a "final" order is issued, Salazar has sent a draft to state BLM offices seeking input. That process is expected to take a month.

e-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com