Wilderness decision could impact Moffat County

A decision by the United States Department of Interior could impact how more than 80,000 acres of land at Vermillion Basin in Moffat County are managed in the future.

The verdict is still out on what that impact might be.

But state environmental organizations have taken notice, saying it could lead to increased development of pristine land, such as that in Vermillion.

Supporters, however, say the change would allow land to be managed for multiple use, and does not dictate the Bureau of Land Management to manage those lands as if they were designated wilderness.

In a letter to Congress last week, Interior Secretary Gale Norton said the department plans to halt all reviews of its western land holdings for wilderness protection.

Vermillion Basin falls under the category of lands that were under review.

The letter was in response to a letter signed off by14 U.S. congressmen requesting that the BLM immediately suspend any new wilderness reviews.

Colorado Sen. Wayne Allard signed off on the letter.

In response, Norton said the department intended to withdraw "The Wilderness Handbook," which requires the BLM to manage areas with wilderness characteristics as if they were wilderness areas.

But those who support wilderness in areas like Vermillion have taken issue with Norton's decision to suspend review of new wilderness areas.

The BLM has the authority to designate lands how it wants, said Jeff Widen, associate director of the Colorado Environmental Coalition.

But now one of those options has been removed, he said.

"We feel like wilderness is being singled out," he said.

Suzanne Jones, assistant regional director for the Wilderness Society in Denver, agreed.

"The Bush administration is saying that it will never again consider wilderness protection for any BLM lands. Not only is this in clear violation of the law, it simply isn't balanced or fair," she said. "The BLM is constantly considering developing additional lands for oil and gas production, yet is now saying 'no' to any more protection for wilderness, and the outstanding wildlife and backcountry recreation values it provides."

Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., has taken notice and wrote a letter criticizing Norton for her decision.

"I am dismayed that your department would broker a deal with the state of Utah that retroactively removes protections and dismantles the ability of the Bureau of Land Management to effectively manage wilderness lands," she wrote. "Your capricious decision to rescind these policies and effectively formulate major federal land management policy behind closed doors, late on a Friday evening, and without adequate public notifications, treads on our country's democratic traditions of open government processes and citizen involvement."

Blair Jones, spokesperson for Congressman Scott McInnis, said the Colorado representative supported the department's decision.

"Essentially, only Congress can declare wilderness," Jones said. "What the Wilderness Handbook was doing was allowing a federal bureaucratic overreach."

Now the power is put back in the hands of Congress, he said.

"Scott has shown a willingness to declare wilderness," Jones said. "But only when it has the citizens' support."

At a local level, John Husband, director of the BLM Little Snake River field office in Craig, said his office hasn't received any direction yet from those in Washington as to what has changed with the decision.

Up until now, he said, the BLM has been inventorying the land in Vermillion Basin to see if it did indeed have wilderness characteristics, and whether those characteristics merited a wilderness designation.

This inventory meant no oil and gas drilling at Vermillion.

John Wright, spokesperson for the Department of the Interior, said lands would continue to be managed as they have in the past.

But those on the other side of the issue say the possible allowance of development on land that was previously being considered for wilderness has changed.

"My family has traveled all over Vermillion Basin for the last 45 years," said former rancher Dick Randolph. "There are Indian archaeological sites that only we have seen. It's an excellent secluded area -- and should stay that way. What the Interior Department has done is outrageous."

Josh Nichols can be reached at 824-7031 or jnichols@craigdailypress.com.

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