msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 12/23/2010 4:33:28 PM ET 2010-12-23T21:33:28

The Obama administration on Thursday undid a Bush-era policy that curbed some types of wilderness designations within the 245 million acres managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management.

While Congress remains the only body allowed to create "Wilderness Areas," the move gives BLM field managers the go ahead to protect areas determined to have "wilderness characteristics."

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"I am proud to sign a secretarial order that restores protections for the wild lands that the Bureau of Land Management oversees on behalf of the American people," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in Denver, where he announced the shift.

Congressional Republicans pounced on the announcement as an attempt by the Obama administration to close land to development without congressional approval.

"This backdoor approach is intended to circumvent both the people who will be directly affected and Congress. I have to question why this announcement is being made only after Congress adjourned for the year," said Washington state Rep. Doc Hastings, a Republican tapped to lead to the House Natural Resources Committee when the GOP takes control of the House in January.

The order essentially repeals a policy adopted in 2003 under then Interior Secretary Gale Norton. That policy stated that Interior could not designate some wilderness protections on its own and had to rely only on Congress for any designations.

The 2003 policy reflected an out-of-court deal struck between Norton and then-Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt to remove protections for some 2.6 million acres of federal land in Utah.

The policy allowed oil and gas drilling, mining and other commercial uses on land under consideration as wilderness areas.

The new policy creates a management category called "Wild Lands".

The Interior Department said that "'Wild Lands,' which will be designated through a public process, will be managed to protect wilderness characteristics unless or until such time as a new public planning process modifies the designation.

"Because the 'Wild Lands' designation can be made and later modified through a public administrative process, it differs from 'Wilderness Areas,' which are designated by Congress and cannot be modified except by legislation, and 'Wilderness Study Areas,' which BLM typically must manage to protect wilderness characteristics until Congress determines whether to permanently protect them as Wilderness Areas or modify their management."

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BLM Director Bob Abbey said it hasn't been decided how many acres are expected be designated as "Wild Lands" and whether those acres will be off-limits to motorized recreation or commercial development while under congressional review. It's also unclear whether there will be a time limit on how long acres can be managed as "Wild Lands" before a decision is made on their future.

Salazar said the agency will also resume evaluating federal BLM lands that could be recommended to Congress for designation as wilderness areas.

The BLM has six months to submit a plan for new wilderness evaluations, Salazar said.

Ranchers, oil men and others have been suspicious of federal plans to lock up land in the West, worrying that taking the BLM land out of production would kill rural economies that rely on ranchers and the eastern Montana oil and gas business.

Their suspicions have been heightened since memos leaked in February revealed the Obama administration was considering 14 sites in nine states for possible presidential monument declarations.

That included 2.5 million acres of northeastern Montana prairie land proposed as a possible bison range, along with sites in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, California, Nevada, Arizona, Oregon and Washington.

Environmental groups praised the reversal, though there has been grumbling that it took the Obama administration nearly two years to overturn the Bush-era policy.

"Washington D.C. always takes longer than you want, but we're glad we've gotten here," said Suzanne Jones, regional director for The Wilderness Society.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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