Decision expected on new wilderness areas

Posted: Sunday, March 30, 2003

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Opposing interests are putting pressure on Secretary of Interior Gale Norton to set guidelines for the consideration of new designated wilderness areas in Alaska.

Some say she's close to a decision.

Alaska's congressional delegation, governor and development interests want Norton to prohibit federal land managers from recommending new wilderness areas.

But environmental groups say there's no legal or logical reason for such a policy. This week, they sent Norton a letter asking for a rejection of the congressional delegation's requests.

The debate comes as the Bureau of Land Management continues to consider more oil leasing in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, 23 million acres covering most of the central and western North Slope.

Under current policies, the BLM has the option of recommending wilderness designations when it prepares environmental impact statements on oil leasing and other development proposals on the land it manages.

For example, one of four management alternatives in an impact statement for the western petroleum reserve proposes wilderness for some areas with lower oil potential. Public comment on proposals ends Wednesday.

Gov. Frank Murkowski and others want the wilderness option shut down for all federal land agencies in Alaska.

Eleanor Huffines, Alaska regional director of The Wilderness Society, said she worries that Murkowski's views may prevail in the Bush administration, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported.

''We do know that Secretary Norton is considering reinstating the Watt directive for the BLM lands in Alaska,'' she said Friday.

The 1981 directive, issued by then-Secretary of the Interior James Watt, prohibited new wilderness reviews by BLM in Alaska. Watt based his directive on the ''no more'' clause in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, passed by Congress in 1980.

That law says federal agencies can't do any more studies of federal lands in Alaska for the ''single purpose'' of establishing ''a conservation system unit,'' unless ''authorized by this act.''

The act did authorize some studies.

''The Secretary may identify areas in Alaska which he determines are suitable as wilderness and may, from time to time, make recommendations to the Congress for inclusion of any such areas in the National Wilderness Preservation System,'' the act says.

Watt, opting not to identify such areas, instead issued his directive telling BLM not to make any recommendations. In doing so, Watt cited the preamble to the Alaska lands act. It says that the parks, refuges and other conservation units Congress established in 1980 provide ''sufficient protection for the national interest in the scenic, natural, cultural and environmental values on the public lands in Alaska.''

Watt's directive remained in force until the last days of the Clinton administration. In early 2001, as President Bush was about to be sworn in, then-Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt revoked Watt's rule.

As a result, the BLM is now, at least from an administrative standpoint, allowed to make wilderness recommendations in Alaska.

In mid-February, Gov. Murkowski wrote Norton, asking her to reinstate Watt's rule and follow the ''letter and spirit'' of the Alaska lands act.

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