WASHINGTON — The Utah men who were the first in the nation to swing a legal sledgehammer to controversial wildlands policy No. 3310 are celebrating its demise, saying it's gratifying to see how the right kind of pressure can effect such a reversal.
"It's tremendous. It's the best news I have heard for a long time," said Uintah County Commissioner Mike McKee. "We are very pleased."
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Wednesday directed the Bureau of Land Management to abstain from designating any "wildlands" on public lands under its purview. Instead, he said the federal agency will work with Congress and other groups to come up with potential candidates for wilderness.
The reversal of Order No. 3310 comes after months of controversy and litigation.
Uintah County and the Utah Association of Counties were the first in the nation to challenge Salazar's order after it was first announced in December.
"It's a great day to live in a country where we have separation of powers, where Congress can undo a bad policy through the power of the purse," said Mark Ward, attorney and senior policy analyst with the Utah Association of Counties.
"That's what they did by taking away the funding option," Ward said of congressional passage of the 2011 Continuing Budget Resolution. The resolution prohibits any funds for enforcement of the order.
Environmentalists bemoaned Salazar's shift, saying it is a disappointment and an abandonment of the BLM's obligation to protect wilderness.
"This apparent capitulation to opponents of wilderness protection is deeply disturbing," said William H Meadows, president of the Wilderness Society. "We hope the secretary will reassert his previous leadership in recognizing the Interior Department's responsibly to protect our most sensitive landscapes for future generations."
But when Salazar announced the so-called policy shift in December, it brought howls of protests from Western conservative lawmakers who said the order represented creation of wilderness by executive fiat, doing an end-run around congressional authority and stripping local and state government from having any input. They accused the order of upending a settlement agreement reached between then-Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt and the interior secretary.
Wilderness advocates, however, said the order was a return to public policy that is rightfully protective of prime public lands that too often are subject to abusive developments.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, one of the most outspoken critics, said Wednesday's return to a localized approach represents better policy.
"This is a win for Utah's county-by-county process, which has proven successful in identifying wilderness," Herbert said. "I have defended Utah's process in my multiple conversations with Secretary Salazar and Deputy (David) Hayes, so I am pleased they are listening. This may be a step in the right direction, but Utah will remain vigilant and engaged on this critical front."
Utah was among several states that sued the Department of Interior over the policy.
Several members of Utah's Republican congressional delegation hailed the change.
"Since the majority of the land in Utah is owned by the federal government," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, "it is critically important to strike a balance between the needs of our local communities and the protection of public lands that truly do have wilderness characteristics rather than pandering to environmental extremists. Today's announcement is a positive step toward restoring that balance."