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Balancing act: How development trumps conservation on our BLM lands

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Federal land managers have a difficult job, but it’s made particularly tough when direction comes from Washington, D.C., to put oil and gas development ahead of all else. In the late 1990s, when I was Colorado director of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), balancing conservation and development was the main part of my work.

I learned firsthand that it is possible to have a vibrant oil and gas program and at the same time protect our wildlife, air, water, and places to hunt, fish, recreate and enjoy wilderness. Back then, managers had the flexibility to avoid leasing in sensitive lands that were roadless or of wilderness quality. Today, it seems, those are the very places targeted.

Oil and gas development in itself is not the problem. The problem is that over the past six years, oil and gas development has become the predominant use wherever those resources might exist. The BLM by law is supposed to be a “multiple-use” agency, and while oil and gas may be an important natural resource, so are those now taking a back seat—from wildlife and fisheries to recreation and cultural history.

The BLM’s rush-to-drill policy is predicated on the false notion that restrictions impede energy development. But according to the agency’s own analysis, most BLM lands, as well as the oil and gas resources in the five Rocky Mountain states containing most of those resources, are available for development, and they have been for a long time.

The agency, prodded by energy developers, is in a hurry, and planning for mitigating the impacts of development gets put off. The agency’s multimillion dollar “Healthy Lands Initiative,” for example, appears to be designed to restore lands harmed by oil and gas development long after the fact, instead of managing to avoid the impacts up front. The BLM is opening ever more sensitive areas to leasing, even though the agency has become unable to meet its commitments to monitor impacts to wildlife and air quality. Over the past few years, the BLM has even leased over 200,000 acres in Colorado and Utah that have been the subject of congressional attempts to designate them as wilderness.

According to the BLM’s statistics, more than 36 million acres of the on-shore federal mineral estate are now under lease. Only 12 million acres, however, produce any oil and gas. Yet the agency estimates that more than a million more acres will be graded, drilled, built upon or disturbed by planned new oil and gas development.

This raises the question we should all be asking: Why does this administration have such a hunger to rush into new leases on some of our most sensitive Western lands?

While in Washington recently, I posed that question while testifying before the House Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee. I presented several recommendations that also have been endorsed by a host of local and national organizations. Many of the recommendations involve reforms to the Energy Policy Act of 2005, such as requiring reclamation bonds to fully cover the cost of restoring damage to public lands and resources; ensuring that inspectors focus on inspection and enforcement activities and not on merely permitting more wells; and requiring the BLM to require adherence to “best management practices” designed to minimize damage from oil and gas activities.

I also asked that Congress consider limiting the BLM’s ability to issue leases in areas that have been proposed for protection, identified as having wilderness characteristics, or that are included in Forest Service roadless areas. I stressed that, given the amount of leases already in place and the damage to our public lands that has already occurred, wasn’t it common sense to ask the BLM to reassess its approach to oil and gas development on our public lands?

The BLM has a proud mission, and I know firsthand that the agency is capable of making oil and gas available to the American people, while at the same time protecting the last remaining wild places in the West. Managing the region’s birthright of public lands has always been a balancing act. What we’ve been forgetting in this rush to please energy developers is what makes our region unique: The wildlife that live on our publicly owned lands, the quality of the West’s air and water, and the property rights of ranchers and farmers.

Ann J. Morgan is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colo., (hcn.org). She lives in Evergreen, Colo., where she directs The Wilderness Society’s public lands campaign.

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