In a move expected to have a significant impact on oil and gas development across the US Rocky Mountain West, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar issued an order Thursday that will designate about 10 million acres of federal lands as “wild lands,” and require federal land managers to protect wilderness values in future land-use decisions.

At a press conference in Denver, Salazar announced a new national wilderness policy, the first such policy since 2003, when the wilderness management guidance in the US Bureau of Land Management’s handbook was revoked as part of a controversial out-of-court settlement between then-Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton, the state of Utah and other parties.

“This policy ensures that the lands of the American public are protected for current and future generations to come,” Salazar said.

The order provides direction to the BLM “regarding its obligation to maintain wilderness resource inventories on a regular and continuing basis for public lands under its jurisdiction.”

The BLM oversees the administration of about 245 million acres of land, most in the Western US.

Salazar cited the Federal Land Policy Management Act of 1976, the Wilderness Act of 1964, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 and other federal legislation as authorization for the new wilderness lands policy.

Under the policy the BLM will identify and inventory lands with wilderness characteristics that are outside of areas currently designated as congressional “Wilderness Study Areas.” The BLM will describe such inventoried lands as “lands with wilderness characteristics and use this information in making land use decisions,” the order states.

The agency also would “protect these inventoried wilderness characteristics when undertaking land use planning and when making project level decisions,” such as decisions involving leasing land for oil and gas development.

Salazar said the new policy “does not lock up lands,” or prevent the BLM from following its mandate of making public lands available for multiple uses, including recreation, grazing, and oil and gas and alternative energy development.

He added it does not affect federal lands that are not under the administration of the BLM.

The order “provides a clear policy of the management of land with wilderness characteristics, creating a new tool for development of public lands,” he said.

This articale orginaly ran in the  Houston (Platts)–23Dec2010/440 pm EST/2140 GMT