On December 23, 2010, the Secretary of the Department of the Interior, Ken Salazar, issued Secretarial Order No. 3310, commonly referred to as the Wild Lands Policy. The Wild Lands Policy established a two-step process through which the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), an agency within the Department of the Interior, was to inventory and to manage its lands with wilderness characteristics (LWCs). The policy continued the requirement that the BLM maintain a current inventory of LWCs and evaluate these LWCs during the previously established land use planning process. The Wild Lands Policy further required that the BLM protect LWCs from impairment unless the BLM determined the impairment was appropriate and took measures to minimize the impacts to wilderness characteristics. If the BLM determined, through the land use planning process, that protection was appropriate, the BLM was to designate the area “Wild Lands” and to protect it as wilderness until the land use plan was revised or amended. The Wild Lands Policy proved immediately contentious. Uintah County, Utah and the Utah Association of Counties quickly filed a lawsuit alleging that the Wild Lands Policy violated the terms of the 2003 Norton-Leavitt Settlement, described later. As it turned out, however, after a lengthy display of political showmanship, on April 14, 2011, the United States Congress passed a Continuing Resolution to finance the federal government that prohibited the BLM from spending any federal funds to implement its Wild Lands Policy.

For wilderness advocates throughout the country, the Secretary’s policy announcement signaled a victory in the long and litigious fight for more federal wilderness designations, or at least an increase in land management plans that provide some level of special protection to lands with wilderness characteristics. Congress’s defunding mechanism, however, revoked the conservationists’ victory. For those advocating for commercial development of BLM lands, the Wild Lands Policy signaled the unraveling of a victory secured in 2003 when the BLM signed a settlement agreement with Utah, relinquishing its claim of authority to conduct wilderness reviews and to establish new Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) under §§ 201 and 202 of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, respectively.

Those opposed to the Wild Lands Policy celebrated Congress’s defunding mechanism. On June 1, 2011, Secretary Salazar announced that “pursuant to the 2011 [Continuing Resolution], the BLM [would] not designate any lands as ‘Wild Lands.’” He further stated that the Interior Department planned to work with congressional members and state and local officials to identify BLM lands potentially appropriate for protection under the Wilderness Act. This endeavor represents the most current status of federal policy for wilderness lands under the jurisdiction of the BLM.

This paper provides a brief history of federal wilderness policies that served as the foundation for Secretarial Order No. 3310. Detailing the litigation between Utah and the BLM, which altered the course of the BLM’s wilderness management practices, this paper will summarize the Wild Lands Policy that was issued as a result of the litigation’s settlement terms. It will analyze whether the BLM had the authority to inventory lands with wilderness characteristics under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA). It will consider whether wilderness is considered a proper use under the BLM’s multiple use and sustained yield management standard. It will explore whether the BLM overstepped its land management authority under FLPMA when it issued the directive to avoid the impairment of wilderness characteristics unless an alternative management was deemed appropriate. Finally, this paper will evaluate whether “Wild Lands” would have created de facto Wilderness Study Areas. By analyzing the potential legal issues created by Secretarial Order No. 3310, this paper provides an evaluation of how well the current Administration is handling the complex task of managing wilderness lands under the multiple use and sustained yield management standard. It will also illuminate the power of Congress to alter wilderness policy with whatever abruptness and intensity it deems appropriate.