Senator John Thune, The Rapid City JournalWhile many people were preparing for the holidays last week, the Obama administration was busy making plans to announce major policy changes through federal regulations.
Just two days before Christmas, the Obama administration's Department of Interior (DOI) issued a secretarial order to reverse the wilderness policy set in place by the Bush administration in 2003. This extreme reversal would give the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) unchecked authority to lock up land currently being used for multiple purposes, including recreation, energy development, farming, and ranching.
The power to designate lands as wilderness areas historically has been reserved for the legislative branch of government. Through the Wilderness Act of 1964, the National Wilderness Preservation System was established and Congress was given the authority to designate land as official wilderness areas.
Unelected bureaucrats at the DOI have chosen to circumvent Congressional approval by announcing a new "Wild Lands" policy last week that will give the BLM the power to set aside land without using the formal wilderness status.
This brazen attempt by the federal government to seize land and put it under lock and key is irresponsible and will undoubtedly damage Western economies that rely on the vast lands for farming, ranching, and energy production.
The federal government's tight grip on land throughout our country is ever-increasing. Currently, there are 759 wilderness areas comprising over 9 million acres of land in 44 states. The federal government owns approximately 30 percent of the land in the United States. While we all recognize the need to preserve our land and ensure its existence for future generations, we must avoid taking a heavy-handed approach that would create further job loss and economic pain in a time of near 10 percent unemployment nationally.
Many of the lands already designated as official wilderness areas are not being adequately maintained by the federal government. Here in the Black Hills, the Black Elk Wilderness Area has suffered tremendous ecological damage. The wilderness area has been devastated by the pine beetle outbreak and rules have prevented proper management and treatment, thus affecting neighboring areas. Despite the pine beetle management efforts being pursued by the Black Hills National Forest staff, the restrictive nature of the wilderness designation, particularly the restriction of motorized equipment, is a huge obstacle for comprehensive pine beetle management. This is just one example of the unintended consequences of permanent wilderness designations.
People in Western South Dakota understand the importance of allowing our public lands to be used responsibly for multiple purposes. Our public lands are home to an abundance of wildlife, energy reserves, and natural resources that we South Dakotans are blessed to enjoy and utilize. South Dakota-like many Western states-has established a balance between the functionality of the land and its preservation. Beyond creating bad precedent, the Obama administration's new proposal will open the door to further damage of the land use balance Western states have established. Granting the BLM the authority to interrupt the land use in our state and elsewhere, with little oversight or accountability, is a recipe for disaster.
The Western way of life is continually being challenged by the current administration. As a member of the Senate Western Caucus, I will continue to work with my colleagues in Congress to prevent this radical federal regulation from taking effect.