LOS ANGELES - Restoring a policy abandoned by the Bush administration, the top Interior official Thursday gave the agency that manages 245 million acres of public land the authority to temporarily protect pristine areas of the West.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar called it "a new chapter in terms of how we take care of our Bureau of Land Management lands."
Salazar's directive casts aside a Bush policy adopted in 2003 after an out-of-court settlement between Gale Norton, secretary of the interior at the time, and the State of Utah.
Under the Norton agreement, the bureau lost its ability to manage pristine areas to preserve their wilderness qualities, pending congressional action. The move potentially opened them to energy development and mining, and the policy was derided as the "No More Wilderness" policy.
The bureau will now compile an inventory of "wild lands" and, as part of a public planning process, have the authority to keep the lands off-bounds to development.
But the classification can be modified, meaning the lands will not have the same permanent protection as congressionally designated wilderness areas.
In Denver, Salazar said the Norton settlement "should never have happened." But he made a point of saying the new classification would not lock up the areas, adding that "flexibility" was needed in managing them.
Conservation groups, which were highly critical of the Bush administration policy of opening vast swaths of western land to oil and gas leasing, praised Salazar's move.
"Today's announcement will allow the broad vistas of Colorado's Vermillion Basin, Utah's Valley of the Gods, and many other unique and irreplaceable landscapes, which provide habitat for wildlife like sage grouse and pronghorn, to be managed to maintain their wildness," Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife, said.
Congressional Republicans pounced on the announcement as an attempt to close land to development without congressional approval.
"This backdoor approach is intended to circumvent both the people who will be directly affected and Congress," said Rep. Doc Hastings (R., Wash.), who has been tapped to lead the House Natural Resources Committee when the GOP takes control of the House in January.