Western governors fume at Obama plan for wild lands

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 1, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Republican governors from across the country made clear this week how much they think Obama administration initiatives interfere with their states' rights.

In the West, Republican governors are especially riled up about the possibility that more federal land could be designated as wilderness, and they fear it might slow energy development in their states, said Idaho Gov. Butch Otter.

"I see it as a job killer," said Otter, who along with fellow Republican Gov. Gary Herbert of Utah, testified Tuesday before a House of Representatives committee about their concerns with a new Obama administration policy. It could extend federal protection without congressional approval to millions of acres of wild lands overseen by the Bureau of Land Management.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced late last year that the government will begin inventorying BLM holdings across the country in an effort to identify and protect wilderness-quality land. Many Republican lawmakers and Western governors say they worry that the inventory — on pause during the Bush administration — could make it more difficult to develop oil and gas or other energy and mineral resources on BLM land.

States were "totally ignored," when the inventory was announced, said Otter, who was among the GOP governors in Washington for their annual winter gathering.

He said he's particularly concerned about what would happen to geothermal energy projects and potential wind power complexes proposed on BLM land in Idaho, as well as plans for transmission lines across some BLM land. The agency manages nearly a quarter of the land in Idaho, or about 12 million acres.

"Nobody called me and said 'in 60 days or in 90 days or 120 days we're going to put out this secretarial proclamation, what do you think?'" Otter said. "Even in that short period of time, I could have suggested a lot of opposition to it."

The Interior Department has been actively fighting the way the BLM inventory is being characterized by Republicans, particularly those on the House Natural Resources Committee.

The Interior Department had to fight to persuade the committee to allow BLM director Robert Abbey to participate in the hearing. The agency also put out a fact sheet countering some of the characterizations of their inventory process, including claims that it could hurt the ability to develop wind and other energy resources on BLM land.

The BLM proposed 24 solar energy zones within 22 million acres of public lands identified for solar development, Abbey said. In 2010, the agency approved nine large-scale solar energy projects anticipated to generate enough electricity to power as many as a million homes.

Entering the 2012 election cycle, wilderness issues are likely to remain divisive in the West, where President Barack Obama will be working to repeat his election victories in Colorado and New Mexico, and when Democrats hope to retain Senate seats in states such as Montana.

It's a political discussion that will resonate with many Westerners, about private property rights, states' rights, and "transparency, jobs and public access," said Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg of Montana, who's seeking the Senate seat held by Democratic Sen. Jon Tester.

Both Rehberg and fellow Republican Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho on Tuesday introduced separate bills that would prohibit the establishment of any national monuments in their states without congressional approval.

Abbey, who was shoehorned in at the end of the hearing, following the governors and a panel of local officials, said the agency was aware of the politics it faced when it issued the inventory order.

But "it was needed," Abbey said. Since 2003, his agency hasn't had any consistent means of categorizing land that could be designated as wild lands. Also, the law and the courts require the BLM to do the inventory, he said.

"Ultimately, the public will be involved in the land-use planning decisions that will reflect how best to manage lands with wilderness characteristics," he said. "In some cases, it will be to protect them; in some cases it will be a determination not to."

In a sign of how the House's priorities have changed since Republicans regained control, no environmental groups were asked to testify at Tuesday's hearing.

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