Image: Buffalo in Montana
American Prairie Foundation
Buffalo are seen in Phillips County, eastern Montana, on land owned by the American Prairie Foundation in 2007.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 3/1/2011 6:24:17 PM ET 2011-03-01T23:24:17

A battle over the West was waged Tuesday in Congress, where House Republicans and 2 Republican governors accused the Obama administration of a land grab by creating "wild land" designations on federal tracts that could also hold lots of oil, gas and/or minerals.

The GOP officials said the policy will circumvent Congress's authority and could be used to declare a vast swath of public land off-limits to oil-and-gas drilling.

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Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., said the policy threatens the economy in rural Western states and accused the Obama administration of waging a "war on the West."

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter called the plan "a drastic change in public policy for public lands that was done without public input." He called on Congress to "take back its authority" and block the new policy.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, appearing with Otter at a hearing before the House Natural Resources Committee, called on the GOP-led panel to "help us right a very real and very damaging wrong."

"How many times do we need to inventory and reinventory the same land?," he asked.

Herbert said the December order by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was harming rural communities throughout Utah whose economies rely on use of public lands.

"This order hinders rural economic development and hurts key funding sources for Utah's school children," Herbert said, noting that royalties from mineral development are a primary founding sources for Utah schools.

Salazar announced plans in December to reverse a Bush-era policy and make millions of acres of public land again eligible for wilderness protection. The so-called "wild lands" plan replaces a 2003 policy — dubbed by critics as "No More Wilderness" — that opened Western lands to commercial development.

A spokeswoman for Salazar called the new policy a common-sense solution that will help the agency better manage public lands, waters and wildlife.

"As a Westerner himself, Secretary Salazar believes that the wild lands policy is a straightforward, practical approach that restores balance to the management of public lands," spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff said.

The policy by itself does not itself create any wild lands designation, nor does it require that any particular lands be protected, said Bob Abbey, director of the Bureau of Land Management.

Designation as wild land can only be made after public comments and review and does not necessarily prohibit motor vehicle use or the staking of new mining claims, Abbey said.

The wild lands policy "provides local communities and the public with a strong voice in the decisions affecting the nation's public lands," he told the committee.

In an interview, Abbey said planning has already begun, and designation of the first wild lands could occur as soon as this summer in Idaho, Wyoming and Alaska. He denied that the plan is unpopular in the West, citing letters of support from recreation and conservation groups and the outdoor industry.

"I think you're hearing some rhetoric" from Western lawmakers, but not grassroots opposition, Abbey said.

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.

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

Abbey has 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.

The administration does have allies among recreation business owners and outfitters. In a letter to Congress this week, 50 from six Western states said that conservation of public lands is good business.

"Rural counties with wilderness or other protected federal lands experience greater economic and population growth than those without wilderness," the letter said, citing research by the Colorado-based Outdoor Industry Association.

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.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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