In a letter sent to the White House led by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, lawmakers call on the Administration to designate more Wilderness Study Areas (WSA) and Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC), to help reach the Democrat’s 30 x 30 goal. These two designations severely restrict the use of the federal lands, often preventing oil and gas development, recreational access, and other multiple uses.
Once a WSA is designated by a federal land management agency, these lands are managed to preserve their wilderness characteristics until Congress approves or releases them from consideration under the Wilderness Act. New infrastructure such as roads, trails and water improvements for livestock and wildlife are prohibited, and other multiple-uses are curtailed.
ACEC designations are created primarily to eliminate any oil and gas development, and like WSA’s, new access routs are prohibited and existing access is diminished limiting the recreational uses. An ACEC can be designated by the agency managing the land through the creation or revision of the land management plans.
The letter reveals that while the White House is courting the hunting and recreational community to support 30 x 30, the policies being advanced by Democratic leadership are working to eliminate those uses. The letter states:
“Under section 202 of FLPMA, once such inventories have been completed, the Department may then move to administratively protect lands as new Wilderness Study Areas, managing them in a wilderness-like state that would help meet standards set forth by President Biden’s goal to protect 30 percent of lands and waters by 2030 (30 x 30).”
While this may appear to be an extreme position from the signers of the letter, the environmental community believes these protections do not go far enough. Even though WSA’s and ACEC’s are considered highly protected, this does not meet the ultimate goal which is to permanently protect these lands in their natural state.
“’Wilderness Study Areas are very specifically intended as interim protections, and thus it would be absurd to include them in 30×30 since the entire goal of 30×30 is to permanently protect 30% of the country,’” said Patrick Donnelly, who works for the Center for Biological Diversity but was expressing his personal opinion and not speaking for the organization. “’Wilderness Study Areas are political footballs in Congress and while they are treated as wilderness today, no one can say what their fate is tomorrow.’” (Greenwire, February 2, 2022, “Senate Dems: More wilderness study areas would boost 30×30” Subscription required)
Importantly, the Durbin letter identifies several area the signers are pressing for more protections:
“More than 29 million acres of public lands are in need of protection. For years, DOI has not utilized its ability to protect these lands, leaving places like the Vermillion Basin in Colorado, Granite Range in Nevada, the Bodie Hills in California, Hatch Canyon in Utah, Otero Mesa in New Mexico, and the Owyhee Canyonlands in Oregon without proper protection for their unique resources. Without proper protections, these lands face many threats that could jeopardize wilderness-quality values the Bureau of Land Management stated these lands have.”