Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., has come out in support of the Obama administration’s policy to inventory additional public land for wilderness features that might someday be recognized as protected property.
Berkley was among 46 House Democrats who signed a letter defending the policy, which has come under fire in some quarters of the West as a further land grab by the federal government.
The policy, the Democrats said, attempts to restore some balance to public land management after they said Gale Norton, President Bush’s secretary of Interior, "unilaterally" imposed a policy of "no more wilderness" in 2003.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar issued a directive in December for the Bureau of Land Management to identify public lands with "wilderness characteristics" that have not already been designated by Congress as wilderness or for formal wilderness study.
The inventory could identify public land for new "wild land" designations. The BLM would undergo formal rule makings, including inviting public comment, as to how the land should be managed until Congress decides whether to take additional action in a process that could take years.
The BLM managed 48 million acres in Nevada, and about 4.5 million acres have been designated wilderness or potential wilderness.
Berkley’s stance puts her at odds with fellow Nevada Rep. Dean Heller, a Republican who, like Berkley, is considering a run for the U.S. Senate next year.
When the Salazar directive was announced in December, Heller criticized it as "a blatant attempt by this administration to circumvent Congress and create de-facto wilderness."
In the letter, which was circulated by Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, Berkley and the other signers sought to rebut that argument.
"Such criticism is based on a misunderstanding of the order and a misunderstanding of wilderness," they wrote. "No law requires the federal government to transform unsuitable land into wilderness and that is not what the order contemplates."
"Further, the order acknowledges that wilderness designations have always been, and remain, the prerogative of the Congress," it said.
Bob Abbey, the Nevadan who heads the Bureau of Land Management, traveled to Utah earlier this month to explain the administration’s decision and also has met in Washington with Republicans who head public land committees in Congress.