Ken Salazar exorcises Gale Norton

It’s been too long in coming, but today Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is repealing a sneak attack on millions of acres of pristine public lands in the West launched by his Bush administration predecessor Gale Norton. CAPAF’s Tom Kenworthy has the story in this cross-post.

In a lamentable tenure that included corruption and ethics scandals, attacks on scientific integrity, and a campaign to turn federal lands into a playground for the oil and gas industry, Norton’s backroom “no more wilderness” deal with a Utah Governor in 2003 was among her most egregious betrayals of the public trust. In it Norton repudiated the Bureau of Land Management’s long accepted authority to protect public lands possessing characteristics that would qualify them as wilderness under the 1964 Wilderness Act.

That authority, accepted by every previous administration “” Democratic and Republican “” since the mid-1970’s, allowed Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to shield special places among the 245 million acres it manages from development, giving Congress the opportunity to decide whether to include them in the national wilderness system. Once developed, such as by roads constructed for oil and gas activities, such areas are rendered forever ineligible for wilderness designation.

Though it affected federal lands in several western states, the Norton policy had by far its biggest impact in Utah, where it removed the umbrella of protection from millions of acres of BLM-managed land. It was a disastrous policy mistake, recognized as such by moderate western newspapers such as the Salt Lake Tribune and Denver Post, and thoroughly repudiated by dozens of legal experts on public lands law.


The anti-conservationist right will no doubt launch predictable attacks on Salazar for undoing the Norton policy. They will describe it as a Washington “land grab” that “locks up” vast areas of public land, hamstrings local economies, kills jobs, and keeps us from achieving energy independence. As usual, they will ignore the facts in their rush to shill for narrow interests intent on plundering our public lands. Their voices are a modern echo of those who in generations past opposed the creation of most of our iconic national parks and monuments, places that today are revered by most Americans and are powerful tourism-based economic engines throughout the West.

Norton’s rejection of Interior’s authority to protect special places on federal lands from development was a radical departure: Even James Watt’s Interior Department during the Reagan administration agreed that the BLM has the authority to continually update its inventory of wilderness quality lands and safeguard them so they remained eligible for permanent protection by Congress.

Salazar’s overturning the Norton policy won’t affect many public uses of these lands including hunting, fishing and livestock grazing. Off-road vehicle use could be curtailed in these special places, but vast areas of western public lands remain open to motorized recreation.

With a new, more conservative Congress taking office next month, and with retrograde lawmakers like Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Oregon) and Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) assuming leadership of key panels that oversee public lands, the oil and gas industry is already firing up its propaganda machine to demand a “drill baby drill” resurgence.

Earlier this month, the Western Energy Alliance, a regional oil and gas trade association, lamenting a recent drop in oil and gas leasing and development in the West, implied it was the result of Obama administration policies. Two months ago, the alliance’s Utah representative Lowell Braxton charged that “Federal land policies are stifling oil and gas activity and preventing $1.8 billion of investment and about 7,500 associated jobs in Utah.”


The Western Energy Alliance totally overlooks simple facts: The decline in oil and gas activity on western public lands is largely due to market forces, and producers have millions of acres of federal land under lease that they have yet to develop.

With vast new quantities of shale gas recently discovered in fields stretching from Texas to New York State, producers are much less interested in exploring hard-to-access places on public lands in the remote west, such as those affected by Salazar’s new policy.

The charge that oil and gas companies are being denied reasonable access to federal lands is ludicrous. At the end of fiscal 2009, the latest year data is available, more than 45 million acres of federal land were under lease to the oil and gas industry, but only about 13 million of those acres were actually under development, leaving the industry an already-leased-but-not-developed inventory of 32 million acres. That’s more than enough for the foreseeable future by any reasonable measure. Ken Salazar’s new directive on wilderness quality western public lands is rightly tilting the scales back toward a proper balance between protection and development.

Tom Kenworthy, in a Wonk Room cross-post.