An order from U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar makes it easier to deem lands near Tucson as wilderness areas, which could make it easier to restrict motorized access and new mining claims.
The new order, which was issued in December, requires the Bureau of Land Management to review designated lands and possibly classify them as protected wilderness areas.
This policy reverses a 2003 decision that halted the Bureau of Land Management’s ability to create new wilderness areas. The Interior Department entered into the 2003 settlement with the State of Utah, agreeing that the BLM had no authority to designate wilderness areas.
Under the latest order, however, the BLM will review the wilderness status of 12.2 million acres in Arizona, including more than 35,000 acres in Ironwood Forest National Monument northwest of Tucson and more than 100,000 acres of Sonoran Desert between Phoenix and Tucson.
BLM’s review of the 129,000-acre Ironwood Forest National Monument does not include the Silver Bell Mountains or Ragged Top Mountain.
According to the BLM, the order “merely restores balance to the management of public lands.”
Currently, the BLM “is going through planning to determine uses of various public lands and seeing if that land has wilderness characteristics,” said Carrie Templin, public affairs specialist at the BLM Arizona office in Phoenix. “As part of the planning process, the BLM must determine which portions of land would be suitable for potential wilderness designation.”
The order will allow the BLM to evaluate an area of wilderness and then request that Congress protect it under the federal Wilderness Act of 1964.
Only Congress can designate lands as wilderness, Templin said.
The Wilderness Act only applies to land affected solely by forces of nature where human impact is minimal or there are opportunities for solitude or “unconfined recreation.” The area should have at least 5,000 acres and have ecological, geological, scientific or historical value.
The latest moves have stirred up debate among trail riders and off-road motorized vehicle owners.
Jeff Gursh of Phoenix, executive director of the Arizona Off-Highway Vehicle Coalition and Arizona Trail Riders, said the main problem is with the definitions of what motorized vehicles really are.
“When you say you are going to create something as wilderness and you are going to ban motorized vehicles, that is not just an ATV or motorcycle,” Gursh said. It includes trucks towing horses and cars with mountain bikes because anything with a motor is banned, he added.
“Mostly this policy is used for identifying wilderness characteristics in order to apply to all land-use decisions with the BLM,” said Kristen Lenhardt, public affairs specialist at the BLM Tucson field office.
“Actually going out and doing these inventories will help us move along in how we decide to manage these different types of areas,” Lenhardt said.
Gursh said the new policy will not only affect off-highway vehicle use but also state tourism.
“We really depend on tourism, so unless you are a marathon runner, odds are you will never be able to see any of the wilderness once it is designated that way because you cannot get to it,” he said.
Dennis Stadel of Scottsdale, president of the Arizona ATV Riders, also said he doesn’t want to see the federal government take land away from riders.
“This policy is a scary thing,” he said.
Stadel added that the Arizona ATV Riders are organizing a voting block. “There are over 400,000 of us in Arizona and we are all against it,” he said. “That is how strong we are.”
Another version of this story appeared in El Independiente.