Once Gone, Gone Forever


Secretary of the Interior Gale A. Norton insists the Bush administration is committed to protecting the nation’s wild lands, but the words of a Bureau of Land Management worker in Price, Utah, tell the real story. “We can protect any landscape that no one wants to use for anything else,” Tom Gnojek told The Times’ Henry Weinstein. “If it’s not wanted by the oil and gas industry or the ORV (off-road vehicle) industry, we can protect it.” The administration is giving industry virtual carte blanche to look for oil and gas wherever it wants outside of existing parks and wilderness areas.

Weinstein’s story, in Monday’s Times, tells of how the Bush administration turned wilderness protection on its head in Utah. The nation’s previous policy had been to protect 2.6 million acres of prospective wilderness in Utah until Congress could decide whether to grant formal protection under the Wilderness Act of 1964 or release the land for other use. Currently, the Bureau of Land Management is roaring ahead to allow oil and gas exploration and drilling in the proposed Red Rock Wilderness area; the issue is pending in Congress. Three lease sales already have been conducted, one of them just last month, despite court challenges.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Nov. 4, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 04, 2004 Home Edition California Part B Page 14 Editorial Pages Desk 0 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Wilderness protection -- In an editorial Oct. 27, a quotation was wrongly attributed to Bureau of Land Management agent Tom Gnojek of Price, Utah. The comment came from fellow agent Dennis Willis.

Similar wilderness-versus-energy issues are simmering in the Upper Green and Powder river basins in Wyoming, the San Juan National Forest in Colorado and the Otero Mesa region in New Mexico.


Utah is a politically conservative state in which the dominant interests have long opposed the idea of wilderness. Among Western states, only Hawaii has less wilderness. Jerry McNelly, a county commissioner in Moab, says of potential wilderness, “We need it for economic development.” That ignores the fact that Moab, the entry point to Arches and Canyonlands national parks, is booming with business from tourists and outdoor recreationists and adventurers. It also blinks at the long history of boom-and-bust energy projects that blighted many areas in the West and left them without steady tax revenue for schools, police and alternative economic development.

Norton says she is only trying to balance federal land policy so that wilderness no longer has primacy over other uses, including energy extraction. But that policy dooms lands ultimately worthy of wilderness projection. Once a road is built and pipelines and pumping stations constructed, the land no longer is wild or qualified under the Wilderness Act. Once gone, it is gone forever.