Americans are right to be skeptical of a disturbing new move by the Obama administration to set aside vast areas of the West in a new category called "wild lands."
Any land designated as such would be managed as wilderness, meaning no activities involving motorized vehicles, grazing -- or virtually anything else -- would be allowed.
In announcing his plan, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar pointed out that the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees 245 million federally owned acres, has not had a "comprehensive national wilderness policy."
He is wrong. The policy is that Congress should decide such important matters. Salazar's plan would strip that power from Congress and place it in his hands.
To understand the sweeping power grab that Salazar is proposing, one first needs to understand how the system currently works. Now, BLM proposes land to be designated as wilderness. This land, called wilderness study areas, is managed as wilderness until Congress "releases" it, returning it to multiple use.
Under the new system, BLM managers would identify "wild lands," have public hearings and then make the designation. Only the BLM could change that designation, not Congress.
To gauge how important this is for the West, consider this. The BLM manages fully 25 percent of the total area of Oregon and Idaho. That's 15.7 million acres in Oregon and 12 million acres in Idaho.
In California, BLM manages 15 percent of the total area -- 15.2 million acres. Only Washington state has escaped such federal control. The BLM manages "only" 436,848 acres there.
Other Western states have an even larger BLM presence. In Nevada, BLM manages 48 million acres -- 67 percent of the state. In Alaska, BLM manages 75 million acres -- an area larger than all of New Mexico.
Managing such vast tracts of federal land puts unprecedented power in the hands of BLM bureaucrats. That alone should send shivers down the spine of every American. Public hearings or not, "transparency" or not, no elected officials will determine whether a tract of land will be excluded from grazing, oil and gas exploration or any other activities.
Those decisions should belong only to Congress.
Because this new system of designating wild lands takes Congress out of the picture, it would make the Owyhee initiative in Idaho all but impossible. In that agreement, in return for designating 500,000 acres as wilderness, Congress released other wilderness study areas to multiple use. The result was a win for all sides -- environmentalists, ranchers, tribes and recreationists.
Without Congress involved, that compromise couldn't have happened.
Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., is the new chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. He doesn't like Salazar's plan one bit.
"The administration clearly knows that the law only allows Congress to designate wilderness areas, though somehow they hope giving it a different label of 'wild lands' will pass legal muster," he said in a press release.
He promises that his committee will "fully review" Salazar's plan.
We can only hope that will be the end of it.