The Interior Department Rightly Restored Protection to Magnificent Wilderness-Quality Lands Throughout the West

Reversal of Bush-era “No More Wilderness” Policy Applauded



Heidi McIntosh, Associate Director, 801.541.5833 (cell)
Stephen Bloch, Attorney, 801.428.3981


Summary:  Secretary of Interior Salazar’s new wilderness guidance gives needed protection to millions of acres of wilderness-quality lands in the West.  The new policy is a critical step towards ensuring the permanent protection of the last remaining wild lands in the West.   Further, protecting these remarkable landscapes will not halt the development of oil, gas and other energy sources from BLM lands.  The vast majority of these lands will still be available for development even as we ensure the lasting protection of the West’s most magnificent wilderness-quality lands.

“Secretary Salazar was absolutely right in recognizing the high value that American’s place on their wilderness lands.  He set the bar very high and now it is up to the BLM to live up to that standard.  The devil is in the details and we look forward to seeing those details,” said Heidi McIntosh, associate director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

“This is a long overdue step to protect amazing wilderness quality lands in Utah and across the west.  With this Order, Secretary Salazar is ensuring that the nation’s wilderness resource is on equal footing with other resources such as oil, gas and mining.  Utah’s wild places will be better off with this Order,” said Stephen Bloch, attorney and energy program director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. 



In 2003, the Bush administration entered into to a hastily-drafted, surprise settlement agreement with the State of Utah, which became known as the “No More Wilderness” policy.  That policy broke with history by disavowing the Interior Department’s well-established authority to protect the wilderness character of spectacular landscapes throughout the West.  Before 2003, every administration had used its authority under Section 202 of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) to identify “wilderness study areas,” or WSAs, and protect their wilderness character.  However, as a result of the 2003 Utah agreement, well-known western icons were at risk from oil and gas drilling and rampant off-road vehicle abuse, including Utah’s redrock canyons, New Mexico’s Otero Mesa, Oregon’s Steens Mountain, Colorado’s Roan Plateau, and Wyoming’s Adobe Town.  

Under the No More Wilderness policy, wilderness became the only resource which the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is specifically precluded from managing or protecting, and the impacts have been profound.  After 2003, with WSAs off the table, the Interior Department auctioned off leases for millions of acres of public lands to oil and gas companies.  Additionally, BLM land use plans released late in 2008 included thousands of miles of off-road vehicle trails in areas the BLM had already found to qualify for wilderness protection.

Preserving these last remaining unprotected wilderness-quality lands is particularly important given BLM’s history of neglect of these national treasures.  Only 3% of BLM lands are now protected by Congress as Wilderness.[1]  Secretary Salazar’s order will restore needed administrative protective tools to nearly 6 million acres of wilderness quality land in Utah, 650,000 acres in Colorado, more than 5.5 million acres in Arizona, and more than 2 million acres in New Mexico (out of the approximately 256 million acres of surface lands managed by the BLM).



Even if all currently unprotected BLM lands which still qualify for Wilderness designation were protected now, the vast majority of BLM lands would still be available for energy development.  In New Mexico, of the 13.4 million acres managed by the BLM, less than 2 million are proposed for wilderness protection outside existing WSAs, while nearly 5.5 million are under lease to oil and gas companies.

Similarly, in Colorado, as of the end of fiscal year 2009, the oil and gas industry held 4.9 million acres of public lands and some 85% of the BLM lands in Colorado are open to oil and gas development. In contrast, only 205,000 acres (or 1.7%) of BLM lands are currently protected as wilderness.  Protection of the all of the lands proposed for wilderness in Colorado would increase the amount of protected BLM lands to only 17%, still leaving the vast majority of BLM land open to extractive uses and off-road vehicle recreation.  

In Utah, an analysis of BLM’s 2008 resource management plans shows that if lands that the BLM itself identified as eligible for wilderness protection were protected, 86% of the proposed oil and gas wells could still be drilled.

Additionally, the oil and gas industry has millions of acres under lease and thousands of drilling permits that it has simply chosen not to put into production.   Through FY 2009, 45,365,695 acres of BLM lands were under lease, yet only 12,842,209 were actually in production.  In other words, oil and gas companies now hold leases on over 32.5 million acres of public lands throughout the West that they are not developing.  Similarly, in FY 2009 BLM issued 4,487 permits to drill for oil and gas, and industry did not use 1,220 of those permits.  See   It makes little sense to open the Nation’s last remaining wildlands to oil and gas drilling with tens of millions of acres that the industry could be developing right now but are not.

Additional Wilderness Facts:

  • Only Congress, not the Department of Interior, can create new wilderness areas pursuant to its authority under The Wilderness Act of 1964.  But the Department of Interior has the administrative authority to provide protection to qualifying areas so that they are still eligible for protection when Congress considers legislation to do so.
  • Wilderness defined:  The Wilderness Act of 1964 defines wilderness as a tract of federal public land at least 5,000 acres in size where, “in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”  Wilderness “retain[s] its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation,” with “outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation” and which “may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.”[2]
  • Only a small fraction of public lands are protected as Wilderness:  Only about 5% of the entire United States—an area slightly larger than the state of California—is protected as wilderness. Because Alaska contains just over half of America's wilderness, only about 2.7% of the contiguous United States—an area about the size of Minnesota—is protected as wilderness.  See
  • The Bureau of Land Management administers the largest portion of our public lands: 256 million acres in the West and Alaska, three times the size of the National Park System.

  • However, the BLM has by far the smallest portion of its domain under the protection afforded by the 1964 Wilderness Act – our strongest form of nature protection.

o       The BLM administers 42 percent of all our public lands, but less than 8 percent of the acreage of our protected wilderness areas. 

o       In the lower 48 states, just 3 percent of BLM lands are protected as wilderness areas.

o       By contrast, the National Park Service administers 13 percent of our public lands, but 40 percent of our entire National Wilderness Preservation System.



[2] 16 U.S.C. § 1131(c).


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