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Environmentalists suffer on key budget provisions

Resolution prohibits ‘wild lands’ policy funding

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DENVER | The biggest losers in the federal budget deal may have been environmentalists, who suffered setbacks not only with cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency budget but also with the shellacking of two of the movement's pet programs.

The Continuing Resolution includes a provision that prohibits funding for the so-called "wild lands" policy, an Obama administration initiative that allows the Interior Department to confer special protections on federal lands without congressional approval.

The resolution also removes the gray wolf of the Northern Rocky Mountains from the endangered species list and allows for state management, which would include managed hunts for the wolves, a species that once was decimated but now thrives.

The additions came as unexpected defeats for the environmental movement, which has enjoyed a series of victories for the past two years under Democratic rule. The Wilderness Society issued a statement Tuesday saying that the resolution "attempts to roll back the clock and open up our wildest lands to drilling and destruction."

"We are very disappointed by the restrictive language regarding the Wild Lands policy," said Wilderness Society President William H. Meadows in a statement. "The fact is that the BLM [Bureau of Land Management] has a legal obligation to protect America's most sensitive public lands, and we will continue to work to make sure those lands are protected by congressional or administrative decisions."

For Western conservatives, however, the resolution came as a reprieve, albeit a brief one. Last week's budget deal extends only to Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year, after which the 2012 budget must be negotiated.

"I think it's fine, but it's also temporary," said Chuck Cushman, executive director of the American Land Rights Association in Battle Ground, Wash. "It gives us some breathing room for the time being. You don't think the other side is going to sit still for this, do you?"

Western Republicans have blasted the wild-lands policy not only for its content but also for how it was issued, which happened a few days before Christmas while Congress was in recess. The initiative gives the Bureau of Land Management broad authority to identify and restrict access to wild lands with "wilderness characteristics."

The result would be restrictions on multiple-use activities such as mining, grazing, vehicle access and recreation. Federal lands may now be protected by being designated as wilderness areas, but such a designation requires an act of Congress.

"It smells bad and it is bad from a process perspective," said Holly Propst, executive director of the Western Business Roundtable in Lakewood, Colo.

Seven Western Republican governors signed a letter in February insisting that Interior Secretary Kenneth L. Salazar withdraw the initiative. The Utah Association of Counties filed a lawsuit claiming the policy circumvents congressional authority, and the state of Utah is likely to follow.

At the center of the congressional action was Rep. Michael K. Simpson, Idaho Republican, who inserted the wild-lands language into the final House budget bill, saying that the Interior Department "has overstepped its authority."

"Only Congress has the authority to create new land designations, and I intend to restore that authority by including this provision in the continuing resolution," Mr. Simpson said in a statement Tuesday.

Western states have fought for years for the authority to manage their wolf populations, and at one point they had it. The Fish and Wildlife Service had issued an order delisting wolves in Idaho and Montana in 2009, stating that the species had met or exceeded its recovery goals, but a 2010 federal court decision placed them back on the endangered species list.

Earlier this month, U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy rejected a proposed settlement between the federal government and environmental groups that would have resumed state management in Idaho and Montana.

That decision placed the ball back in Congress's court, said Mr. Simpson.

"Judge Molloy's decision left little doubt that without the passage of my language, wolves would remain under unnecessary federal protection indefinitely," said Mr. Simpson.

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