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msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 6/1/2011 3:24:36 PM ET 2011-06-01T19:24:36

The Obama administration is backing away from a plan to make millions of acres of undeveloped land in the West eligible for federal wilderness protection.

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Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a memo Wednesday to his agency that officials will not designate any public lands as "wild lands."

Instead, Salazar said, the agency will work with members of Congress to develop recommendations for managing millions of acres of undeveloped land in the West.

The memo came after a budget deal approved by Congress prevented the Interior Department from spending money to implement the wilderness policy. Moreover, several Western states filed suit to block the plan.

Salazar's decision reverses an order issued in December to make millions of acres of public land eligible for wilderness protection. The December plan replaced a 2003 policy — dubbed by critics as "No More Wilderness" — that opened Western lands to commercial development.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, hailed Salazar's reversal of what he called a "misguided" policy that would have harmed Utah's economy.

"Since the majority of land in Utah is owned by the federal government, it is critically important to strike a balance between the needs of our local communities and the protection of public lands that truly do have wilderness characteristics rather than pandering to environmental extremists," Hatch said. "Today's announcement is a positive step toward restoring that balance."

William Meadows, president of The Wilderness Society, said he was deeply disappointed at the decision, which he said ignores the Bureau of Land Management's obligation to protect wilderness values.

"Without strong and decisive action from the Department of Interior, wilderness will not be given the protection it is due, putting millions of acres of public lands at risk," Meadows said.

At a congressional hearing last March, House Republicans and 2 Republican governors accused the Obama administration of a land grab by creating the "wild land" designations on federal tracts that could also hold lots of oil, gas and/or minerals.

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

Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., said the policy threatened 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 harmed rural communities throughout Utah whose economies rely on use of public lands.

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"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.

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

Designation as wild land would only be made after public comments and review and did 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.

The administration did have allies among recreation business owners and outfitters. In a letter to Congress, 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.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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