WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Interior Department wants to limit Bureau of Land Management lands eligible for wilderness protection to 23 million acres nationwide, a figure environmental groups say leaves millions of pristine acres vulnerable to development.
The department told Congress on Friday that it intends to halt all reviews of its Western land holdings for new wilderness protection and to withdraw that protected status from some 3 million acres in Utah.
Suspending wilderness reviews would limit the amount of land held by its Bureau of Land Management eligible for wilderness protection at 22.8 million acres nationwide. Congress could order additional areas protected.
''What they're saying is these wilderness-quality lands throughout the West will continue to be degraded and continue to lose their eligibility for wilderness,'' said Jim Angell of EarthJustice. ''It's just appalling.''
In Alaska, said Interior Secretary Gale Norton, BLM no longer will perform wilderness reviews of public lands without broad support of the state.
''I instruct BLM to consider specific wilderness study proposals in Alaska, as part of any new or revised resource management planning effort, if the proposals have broad support among the state and federal elected officials representing Alaska,'' Norton said. ''Absent this broad support, wilderness should not be considered in these resource management plans.''
That brought quick praise from state Senate President Gene Therriault, R-North Pole, and House Speaker Pete Kott, R-Eagle River. Therriault said the decision puts back in place the ''No More Clause,'' a promise not to conduct further wilderness study after passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980.
ANILCA preserved more than 150 million acres in protected conservation units and more than a third, 57 million acres, were designated as wilderness, Republican lawmakers said.
Norton said her department remains committed to wilderness protection.
''The Department stands firmly committed to the idea that we can and should manage our public lands to provide for multiple use, including protection of those areas that have wilderness characteristics,'' she said in a letter sent late Friday to members of Congress.
Norton said Congress gave the Interior Department 15 years in 1976 to inventory wilderness areas, and only those areas identified by 1991 as having wilderness characteristics qualified for protection.
The policy changes come as part of a settlement filed in federal court in Salt Lake City. Utah had sued the Interior Department in 1996 over a reinventory of 3 million acres conducted by then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.
Most of the lawsuit was dismissed, and it sat dormant for years until the state amended its complaint last month.
Norton's announcement means that the department will disregard the results of Babbitt's 1996 reinventory. That inventory identified 5.9 million acres of Utah land that qualified for wilderness protection, 3 million acres more than found in the original inventory during the Reagan administration.
Sizable portions of the additional 3 million protected acres are red rock canyons and rock formations in the southeastern part of Utah.
The settlement must be approved by a federal judge in Utah, who also has yet to rule on efforts by environmentalists to intervene in the case.
Wilderness areas, as defined by the 1964 Wilderness Act, are those ''untrammeled by man,'' and are protected from oil and gas development, off-road use, and various types of construction.
The BLM had been managing the land to preserve its wilderness characteristics. Now it can be used according to the land-use plans that had been prepared previously by the BLM, which could include mining and recreation.
''It looks like Interior agrees with me and my Western colleagues that the BLM does not have the authority to designate new wilderness study areas,'' said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. ''Secretary Norton's actions will bring resolution to the illegal activities of the past administration.''
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