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Obama Administration Backs Away From Wilderness Plan

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Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar watches geese fly overhead as Bureau of Land Management Director Bob Abbey speaks about an initiative that would allow the BLM to designate and protect wilderness areas on Thursday, Dec. 23, 2010 outside of REI in Denver. (AP)

The Obama administration is dropping a controversial plan to restore eligibility for federal wilderness protection to millions of acres of undeveloped land in the West after the GOP-led House put up a strong fight.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a memo Wednesday that his agency will not designate any of those public lands as "wild lands." Instead Salazar said officials will work with members of Congress to develop recommendations for managing millions of acres of undeveloped land in the West. A copy of the memo was obtained by The Associated Press.

Salazar's decision reverses an order issued in December to reverse a Bush-era policy that opened some Western lands to commercial development.

A budget deal approved by Congress prevented the Interior Department from spending money to implement the wilderness policy. GOP lawmakers complained that the plan would circumvent Congress' authority and could be used to declare a vast swath of public land off-limits to oil-and-gas drilling.

Republican governors in Utah, Alaska and Wyoming, filed suit to block the plan, saying it would hurt their state's economies by taking federal lands off the table for mineral production and other uses.

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."

Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, also cheered the announcement, calling it a "positive."

"I'm glad to see the administration move in the right direction on this," he said. "We all share the common bond of loving our public lands, and ensuring access to them is important. We will continue to be vigilant and make sure that future designations of public lands are made by consensus, not by executive fiat."

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.

Bob Abbey, director of the land management bureau, said the December directive would not have required protection for any particular areas. Designation as wild land could only be made after public comments and review and would not necessarily prohibit motor vehicle use or the staking of new mining claims, Abbey said.

The measure blocking implementation of the wild lands policy was included in a budget bill for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.