Clinton administration looking at rewriting wilderness policy

Posted: Tuesday, September 12, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A 19-year-old Interior Department policy barring additional wilderness studies of Bureau of Land Management lands in Alaska will be getting another look by the Clinton administration.

The action could clear the way for the BLM to begin inventorying its Alaska holdings for possible study for inclusion in the federal wilderness system.

Only Congress can designate a wilderness. Areas under study usually are treated as if they are wilderness and could become off-limits to development and some recreational uses, such as access by off-road vehicles.

The Bureau of Land Management has jurisdiction over roughly 70 million acres in Alaska and includes lands that environmental groups have felt should have greater protection. That includes some important waterfowl staging areas in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska on the North Slope and areas next to Denali National Park and Preserve.

Marilyn Heiman, the Interior Department's special assistant for Alaska, confirmed Monday that the policy, enacted by President Reagan's Interior secretary, James Watt, is under review.

''We've heard from the public that there is concern about this Watt directive, and we'll be looking at this over the next couple of months to see if it should be rescinded,'' Heiman told the Anchorage Daily News.

The review may be delayed until after the November general election to help insulate the Clinton administration from the expected reaction of the Alaska congressional delegation.

Sen. Frank Murkowski and Rep. Don Young chair committees with direct jurisdiction over the Interior Department, and Sen. Ted Stevens heads the Senate Appropriations Committee that helps write Interior secretary Bruce Babbitt's budget.

Congress expects to adjourn early next month, after all the 2001 budget bills are signed into law. By waiting until after the November general election, the administration also would avoid accusations that it's trying to boost Vice President Al Gore presidential chances.

Murkowski was angered Monday when told about the potential for scrapping the Watt order.

Rescinding the Watt directive would be a violation of the promises made to the state when Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act and President Carter signed it into law on Dec. 2, 1980, Murkowski said.

Before congressional enactment of the lands act, BLM lands were scheduled for study under wilderness review laws applying to all federal lands around the country.

But because the lands act declared as wilderness more than 56 million acres of federal lands in the state, the bill contained an exemption for Alaska from mandatory wilderness review and instead made such studies discretionary.

Watt's policy was unchallenged for the eight years of the Reagan administration and the four years that George Bush occupied the White House. But environmentalists began leaning on the Clinton administration to lift that policy shortly after taking office in January 1993.

Babbitt's response then was that the Clinton administration had plenty of opportunities to influence land management activities in Alaska without rescinding the wilderness study provision, said Allen Smith, Alaska regional director for The Wilderness Society.

But environmentalists persisted in their pressure on Babbitt to scrap the Watt policy and issue his own directive to restart the wilderness study process.

''This is one piece necessary for fulfilling the promise of the lands act,'' Smith said, adding that The Wilderness Society believes as much as 50 million acres of BLM land would qualify as wilderness.

Washington lawyer-lobbyist Bill Horn, who drafted the Watt memo while working as deputy undersecretary, said Alaska probably will face a long battle over new wilderness studies if the policy is rewritten.

The standard applied to Lower 48 lands is that areas without roads and larger than 5,000 acres qualify as wilderness, Horn said.

''If you take that stand in Alaska, what part of the BLM land would not qualify?'' he said. ''If you repeal that (Watt) directive, it will upset one of the critical balances of the lands act.''

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