Wharton: BLM should be able to designate wild lands

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

As spring approaches, many of us begin planning what to do with our yards, making plans for gardens, a new patio or perhaps taking out some lawn to save water. In some cases, we could face zoning or neighborhood covenant restrictions requiring approval. What we do should not adversely affect our neighbors' privacy, comfort or property values.

Given the gnashing of political teeth by Utah's governor, congressional delegation, Legislature and some county commissioners over the Bureau of Land Management's late-December decision to allow the setting aside of some "wild lands" as part of its planning process, shouldn't federal land managers be able to make long-term decisions about land uses just as we do in our backyards? The word "planning" frightens many Utahns, especially when it's being done by the government. Yet, when done correctly, it helps the present and preserves the future.

I've always preferred the term "multiple choice" as opposed to "multiple use" when deciding what activities should be allowed on BLM lands. That's because it is impossible for a single piece of land to be used for grazing, wildlife, motorized recreation, oil and gas development, watershed protection and wilderness. Managers, with input from the public, must carefully decide which uses make sense.

Utah has been at the center of prohibiting the setting aside of potential BLM wilderness areas. An agreement in 2003 between then-Gov. Mike Leavitt and Bush Interior Secretary Gale Norton took away any authority the BLM had to designate wilderness study areas. Now, under a new administration, the agency led by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has overturned that agreement. The new policy says the BLM can inventory lands for wilderness quality and then seek protection for them through a public process.

This brings up an interesting legal argument. Some say that only Congress can designate wilderness, but other experts disagree.

For example, 55 teachers of natural-resources law from schools across the country, including the University of Utah, wrote a seven-page letter stating that under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act that governs the BLM, legal precedents and the law allow the agency to create wilderness study areas. They argue the law requires the Secretary of the Interior to maintain an inventory of public lands, giving priority to areas of critical environmental concern. The law experts also said the agency has continuing authority under the law to designate wilderness management areas and "to manage them as not to impair their suitability for preservation by Congress as wilderness."

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert contended to Congress that the long-term effect of the new wild-lands policy could cost billions to Utah's Permanent School Trust Fund. The School and Institutional Trust Fund reported in 2008 the actual amount flowing into schools from this account is $27 million. And that was with the Norton-Leavitt agreement banning planning for wilderness in place.

What would make more sense is for the BLM, the state of Utah and Congress to engage in serious long-term planning that would include finding a large block of federal land that could be rich in mineral or oil and gas qualities that the state trust would be given. In exchange, hundreds of small blocks of state holdings inside federal lands would be turned over to the BLM.

What the BLM's new wild-lands policy is not is a federal land grab, a charge frequently leveled by Utah's politicians. How can you "grab" something that is already yours — in this case, property belonging to the citizens of the United States?

In the end, doesn't it make long-term economic and conservation sense to plan long-term uses for federal land ,just as those of us who own homes do with our property?