WASHINGTON - Under pressure from Congress, the White House is backing away from a plan to make millions of acres of undeveloped land in the West eligible for federal wilderness protection.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a memo Wednesday that his agency would not designate any of those public lands as "wild lands." Instead, Salazar said, officials will work with members of Congress to develop recommendations for managing millions of acres of undeveloped land in the West.
"The protection of America's wilderness for hunting, fishing, and backcountry recreation should be a unifying issue that mobilizes us to a common purpose," he said. "We will focus our effort on building consensus around locally supported initiatives."
The decision reverses an order issued in December to restore eligibility for wilderness protection to millions of acres of public lands. That policy overturned a Bush-era approach that opened some Western lands to commercial development.
A budget deal approved by Congress prevented the Interior Department from spending money to implement the wilderness policy. GOP lawmakers complained that the plan would circumvent Congress' authority and could be used to declare a vast swath of public land off-limits to oil-and-gas drilling.
Republican governors in Utah, Alaska, and Wyoming, filed suit to block the plan, saying it would hurt their state's economies by making federal lands unavailable for mineral production and other uses.
"Arbitrarily restricting citizens' use of our public lands and obstructing the development of domestic energy on those lands is the wrong thing to do, especially during an economic recession and without any input from Congress or local officials," Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R., Utah) said, hailing the reversal.
William Meadows, president of the Wilderness Society, said the decision ignored the Bureau of Land Management's obligation to protect wilderness values.