Moffat County Commissioner Tom Mathers fears Vermillion Basin, shown here, could be a target of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s wildlands order, which could eliminate land uses that interfere with wilderness characteristics across the nation. However, a provision in the 2011 budget, which funds the government through September, cuts funding for the wildlands order. The order will likely be a point of negotiation for the 2012 budget.

Courtesy of Sam Cox

Moffat County Commissioner Tom Mathers fears Vermillion Basin, shown here, could be a target of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s wildlands order, which could eliminate land uses that interfere with wilderness characteristics across the nation. However, a provision in the 2011 budget, which funds the government through September, cuts funding for the wildlands order. The order will likely be a point of negotiation for the 2012 budget.

Moffat County Commissioners, environmental rep divided on wildlands funding

Moffat County Commissioner Tom Mathers said two rounds of voting Thursday in Washington, D.C., proved to be “real good news” for Northwest Colorado.

Mathers was referring to Congress’ approval of the 2011 budget and more specifically a provision in it to eliminate funding for an order given by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to inventory wildlands across the country.

Such an order could have negative impacts for several areas and multiple use lands in Moffat County, Mathers said.

“I think we still have to stay on top of it and do our fair share of worrying because there is an entity out there that would like this to happen,” he said. “They’ll probably continue to pursue it and probably go for funding next year and hopefully it won’t get funded again.”

Late last year, Salazar approved Order No. 3310, which directs the Bureau of Land Management to identify and inventory lands with wilderness characteristics.

Once local BLM field offices have identified those wilderness characteristics, the order directs the BLM to label them as wildlands and manage those areas to preserve their wilderness qualities by adjusting or eliminating some, or all, of the other uses they have.

Before the order, the BLM could inventory the land for wilderness characteristics, but only a Congressional vote could secure the protection afforded by a wilderness designation.

“I’m hoping that no funding will kill that wildlands program simply because to do what Salazar wants to do with the land it takes an act of Congress to turn it to wilderness and he’s superseded that with this (order) and it’s wrong,” Mathers said. “It takes everybody who has something to say about it out of the equation. It gives all the power to one man.”

Joshua Green, press secretary for Congressman Scott Tipton, said Tipton has opposed the wildlands order since it was announced.

Green said Tipton voted against the budget Thursday because he did not feel it addressed the federal deficit sufficiently.

Green expects the budget, which funds the government through September, to be signed by President Barack Obama soon. Funding for the wildlands order could be a negotiating point for the 2012 budget, he said.

“When we are seeing double-digit unemployment across our entire district, we can’t put ourselves in a box by cutting off some of those important areas and resources,” Green said of the wildlands order. “At least with congressional oversight, that is put into consideration. That open process and the voice of the people are lost when you have a bureaucratic agency making those decisions.”

Commissioner Tom Gray said the provision is the materialization of outcry from several Western states that opposed the measure. He said the wildlands policy could have negative impacts on multiple uses of land including energy, grazing and others if it is funded in the future.

“This wildlands policy allows administratively to designate land as wildlands and to stop any uses that would possibly interfere with those wilderness characteristics,” he said noting such an action is an “end run around the Wilderness Act.”

Mathers said he still fears the 77,000-acre Vermillion Basin in western Moffat County and other wilderness study areas could be designated wildlands if the order isn’t rescinded.

“We have got more than enough ground in either monuments, studies or parks that we don’t need anymore,” he said.

Soren Jespersen, Northwest Colorado wildlands coordinator for The Wilderness Society, said he supports the wildlands policy. The provision cutting the order’s funding, he said, has little to do with cutting the federal deficit.

“It is a philosophical attack on the public lands that provide the clean air, clean water and recreation for our communities and I’m really disappointed,” he said of the budget provision. “Big oil and natural gas enjoy billions in federal subsidies and they have their fingers on over half of the BLM-managed lands in Colorado.”

Jespersen noted 55 percent of the 8.3 million acres of BLM managed land in Colorado is currently leased by oil and gas companies. However, only 8 percent of the 8.3 million acres would be affected by the wild lands policy, he said.

“The wild lands policy just confirms the importance of wilderness on our public lands,” he said. “Its direction is necessary to ensure that wilderness is given its rightful place among the resources and values of our public lands. The BLM is required to manage for multiple use and wilderness qualities are one of those uses and it always has been.”

Mathers said the wildlands policy doesn’t take into consideration diverse opinions on the management of lands.

“The government is listening to all the environmentalists and they’re not hearing the silent majority that is using the land for multiple use purposes,” he said. “It is because they are out there with a job making a living and they don’t have time to sit there and make phone calls and lobby, which makes the silent majority look like a minority.”

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