ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has rescinded a 19-year-old directive that kept the Bureau of Land Management from considering any of the agency's 80 million acres in Alaska for designation as wilderness.
It was one of Babbitt's last official acts before the Clinton administration fades into history.
Babbitt's maneuver apparently has little immediate effect. It would allow the BLM to review and consider recommending that some of its Alaska holdings be included the National Wilderness Preservation System.
Only Congress can add land to the wilderness system.
But a lifting of the ban imposed by Interior Secretary James Watt in 1981 was welcomed by environmentalists although it drew fire Thursday from Sen. Frank Murkowski.
''It's not surprising that on his way out the door, without public comment or state consultation, that Secretary Babbitt would attempt to overturn what had been settled department policy for nearly two decades,'' Murkowski said.
The Alaska Republican hopes President-elect George W. Bush's administration will seek public comment about Babbitt's decision.
However, Deborah Williams of the Alaska Conservation Foundation said Babbitt's decision actually encourages more public discussion about whether some BLM land is best reserved as wilderness.
''BLM manages certain lands in Alaska that have premier wilderness values,'' Williams said. ''Alaskans and all Americans should be able to consider major management options for our public lands to achieve the highest and best use of those lands.''
Marilyn Heiman, Babbitt's special assistant for Alaska, said Babbitt's move will allow BLM land to undergo the same normal planning process used by other Interior Department agencies to decide how public land should be designated.
In a two-page letter to the head of the BLM, Babbitt said Watt's directive ''takes an unduly restrictive approach.
''Over the years since it was signed, interest in providing the legal protection of the Wilderness Act to suitable areas of the public land, including Alaska, has not abated,'' Babbitt said. The ''BLM should not be arbitrarily foreclosed from considering such issues.''
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