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Originally published Thursday, November 10, 2011 at 11:13 AM

Administration urges new wilderness protections

The Obama administration is calling for 18 new wilderness and conservation area declarations in nine states, according to a report released Thursday by the secretary of the Interior that he hopes will result in new legislation from Congress establishing the new land protections.

Associated Press

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HELENA, Mont. —

The Obama administration is calling for 18 new wilderness and conservation area declarations in nine states, according to a report released Thursday by the secretary of the Interior that he hopes will result in new legislation from Congress establishing the new land protections.

Most of the areas proposed for new protections are in the West, where the administration previously came under fire for a scuttled proposal to name new land protections as part of a presidential declaration. The administration says the new proposals have "significant local support."

They include Montana's Sleeping Giant, Nevada's Pine Forest Range, New Mexico's Rio Grande del Norte and 15 other areas.

Bureau of Land Management director Bob Abbey said there is room for more wilderness even as the BLM pushes for more oil, gas and other energy development.

The proposal is the latest plank in what the administration is calling the America's Great Outdoor's initiative.

Representatives from all 50 states were asked to identify specific projects in which the federal government could form partnerships as part of the America's Great Outdoors Initiative. The conservation plans are meant to protect public land, encourage more people to enjoy the outdoors and bolster employment in tourism and recreation.

Earlier this month, the Interior Department separately released a report identifying 101 high-priority conservation projects, such as an all-season trail system in Alaska's Denali State Park and the completion of a 32-mile trail through urban areas in central Florida.

Many of those projects had already launched. The Interior Department envisioned helping the state and local groups that had been advancing them.

The Obama administration came under fire last year for an internal memo that identified several areas in the West as potential national monuments. Critics had pointed to that as a sign the administration aimed to unilaterally lock up land from development.

The latest plan released Thursday would instead require congressional approval. But Republican critics were still not impressed and rejected the administration's claim that the proposals all had significant local support.

"Whether it's one bill that locks up a million acres or a hundred bills that lock up 1,000 acres each, the end goal is the same. There are places in Montana that deserve protection, but we simply do not need bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., making those decisions," said U.S. Rep. Deny Rehberg, of Montana. "Land use decisions should be based on consensus with the local community, not the collaborative efforts of unelected bureaucrats and big money special interest groups."

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