Putting the "Public" Back in Public Lands

An open letter to the next president from a Colorado journalist

  • Daniel Glick
  • Oct 01, 2008

Dear 44th President:

As the 2008 presidential campaign reaches its final stages, the tasks awaiting the victor loom like an endless to-do list. Out here in the West we hope to rank high on that list, because we face serious conservation and environmental issues that will affect the nation at large. During the past eight years, White House plans and policies have done a lot of damage to our part of the country, affecting wildlife and wildlife habitat as well as the quality of human life. We need your help to get things back on track.

You're about to become Landlord-in-Chief of a rich American legacy--the nation's vast holding of public lands that nurture wildlife and industry, clear skies and clean water, healthy ecosystems and healthy people. The federal government administers about a third of the nation's lands in trust for the American people, including national parks, national forests, wildlife refuges, national monuments and national historic sites. Between 25 and 80 percent of the land in most western states now falls directly under your supervision--hundreds of millions of acres we as a nation have kept judiciously in the public domain. All told, there's enough federal public land to create 18 states the size of Arizona and 17 the size of Illinois.

Over the years, Congress has passed some impressive laws intended to help strike a balance in our management of these lands, where we might want to mine coal and preserve blue ribbon trout streams, tap gas reserves and set aside elk preserves, use forests for timber and protect forests for timber wolves. Finding a balance between exploitation and protection has been a long struggle, resulting in the multiple-use ideal in which federal lands become bases for camping, hunting, fishing, hiking and wildlife habitat as well as mining, logging, livestock grazing and fossil-fuel extraction.

During the past eight years, the nation has seen something of a revolution in how the federal government administers public lands, and in the process even the pretense of balance has disappeared. Large tracts of public land all around the Rocky Mountain West have been bulldozed in the name of rapid, almost uncontrolled oil and gas production, turning critical wildlife habitat into industrial zones. The western United States has seen a no-holds-barred assault on its open spaces, from Alaska's coastal plain, where the oil industry wants to drill one of the last pristine stretches of seashore left in the nation, to New Mexico's Otero Mesa, where ranchers, hunters and conservationists have been fighting the oil and gas industry over a 1.2 million-acre grassland that harbors more than 1,000 native wildlife species, including black-tailed prairie dogs, desert mule deer, mountain lions, golden and bald eagles, and more than 250 songbird species. 

The loss of balance can be seen in many of the Bush administration's actions: squelching scientific documents concerning global warming, as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) did during George W. Bush's first four years; changing the meaning of "endangered species populations" to weaken protections for vanishing salmon in the Pacific Northwest; and altering the results of scientific studies to avoid listing jeopardized species. In the West alone the assault on vast reaches of public lands speaks volumes about the need for a wiser and more measured presidential sensibility about conservation and land management.

Here's what happened: On May 18, 2001, President Bush signed Executive Order 13212, "Actions to Expedite Energy-Related Projects," one of the most far-ranging and destructive swipes of a pen that a president has inflicted on federally administered public lands. The order essentially commanded land managers to make energy extraction the primary use of federal land administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), even though, by law, these lands are supposed to be managed for multiple uses.

That measure apparently wasn't enough for this administration. At the White House's urging, Congress in 2005 passed an energy bill that exempted energy companies from many of the nation's environmental laws while placing new restrictions on safeguards for human or ecological health. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 explicitly declared that the chemicals the companies use to get methane from deep reservoirs were not subject to the Safe Drinking Water Act, though the EPA considers some of these chemicals, such as benzene, toxic or even carcinogenic. The new law instituted regulations that would speed up federal drilling permit applications, such as "categorical exclusions" that circumvented legal requirements for thorough review of the environmental impacts posed by certain drilling proposals. BLM staff involved in approving applications reportedly were evaluated for raises and promotions based on how rapidly they okayed permits.

In conjunction with a desire to fast-track drilling and other exploitation of federally administered public lands, the White House routinely appointed extractive industry professionals to head critical land-management agencies. For example, Bush made J. Steven Griles, a coal-industry lobbyist, the second in command at the Department of the Interior, the agency responsible for regulating mining on public lands. Griles later was fined and sentenced to prison for obstructing a Senate investigation in the corruption case involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Another Bush appointee, Julie MacDonald, while serving as a deputy assistant secretary at the Interior Department, repeatedly overrode staff scientists' recommendations to list certain plants and animals as threatened or endangered, ranging from white-tailed prairie dogs to various salmon species. When a federal investigation indicated that she also had broken federal rules by giving non-public government documents to oil industry and property-rights groups, she resigned from office. With people such as these in key positions that affect public lands management, and with watered-down rules and regulations, the gate was open for a Bush Boom in developing wild public lands.

The result was a drilling juggernaut. According to a recent Wilderness Society analysis of federal data, BLM approved nearly 33,000 applications for drilling permits in the Rocky Mountain region between 2001 and 2007. During the first year of the Bush administration the number of permits in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Montana and New Mexico rose 12 percent above year-2000 leases and has steadily increased over the Bush administration's two terms, with the number of annual approvals increasing 125 percent between 2001 and 2007. In Colorado alone, the number of drilling permits issued jumped from about 1,500 in 2000 to nearly 6,500 last year.

More than 60,000 wells currently are producing on public lands, and nearly 120,000 new wells are planned. Even if you, as the new president, want to restore drilling to a less environmentally threatening level, you will have a real challenge in trying to do so. Under the fast-track plan, drilling companies have built up a backlog of permits and may be able to drill more than 1,000 wells a year for the next few decades in Colorado's Piceance Basin alone, increasing the current number there from about 7,000 wells to 37,000 by 2035. Plans also are in the works for two big coal-bed methane operations in the Red Desert near Rawlins, Wyoming.

The Atlantic Rim, an important wildlife area in the Red Desert, is home to some of the most productive big game habitat in Wyoming. Its diverse upland and riparian areas support mule deer, pronghorn and elk. Ninety-two percent of the Atlantic Rim provides nesting or brood-rearing habitat for the dwindling greater sage-grouse and offers some of the highest-density sage-grouse habitat in the nation. Yet BLM has authorized more than 2,000 new gas wells that the agency itself admits will make the entire 270,000-acre Atlantic Rim area "undesirable for hunting or wildlife viewing" throughout the project area for "at least two generations." BLM has slated more than 14,000 new wells for public lands in the Red Desert as a whole.

The drilling that has already occurred has made its mark on local life. In rural Wyoming, residents have suffered through recent air-quality warnings that would make Los Angeles choke, with unprecedented state ozone levels that exceeded federal limits several times over the past few winters. Here in Colorado, industry leaks and spills have yielded rivers of waste along the Western Slope. In New Mexico and Wyoming, coal-bed methane development has infused some freshwater aquifers with saline water and heavy metals. At other sites in the West, industry service roads and drilling rigs have carved up and fragmented wildlife habitat and migration corridors.

About 26 million acres of federal land already are leased to energy companies in Montana, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico. The Piceance Basin in Colorado, the San Juan Basin in northern New Mexico and the Pinedale Anticline in Wyoming--vast landscapes that were barely marked by two-track jeep trails and frequented mostly by wintering mule deer and pronghorn, as well as hunters, hikers, anglers and campers, before the Bush Boom--are now webbed with hundreds of miles of graded roads, compressor stations, processing plants, worker camps and drilling rigs.

Hall Sawyer, a Wyoming-based wildlife biologist funded by a coalition of energy companies, has assessed the impacts of energy development on mule deer that winter near Pinedale. He has found that, in the wake of development, mule deer have declined by a third during the 10 years his study has been ongoing--a drop that comes on the heels of ramped-up natural gas extraction. Another recent Pinedale-area study, funded by Shell Oil and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, reported that development is pushing pronghorn off winter range.

If nothing else, the past few years have shown that expedited application reviews and exemptions to environmental laws do not add up to an energy policy. We can do a lot better by phasing in development, as outlined in a Colorado state proposal to spread out leasing over a period of years and to require companies to put up bigger bonds as guarantees they will clean up after themselves. We must give more thought to the needs of both people and wildlife, to clean air and potable water, after the current boom goes bust. We need a president who appoints officials committed not to serving industrial interests alone but to serving also the nation's long-term needs and the natural legacy and heritage of the American people.

Already signs of a more promising future are radiating from that late January day in 2009 when you will step into office. Perhaps under your leadership global warming will be address and the nation will take a more balanced approach to meeting its energy needs, with potentially far-reaching effects in the West. Out here, energy policy is entwined both with global warming and with water policy, because most energy development uses a lot of water and because scientists predict that global warming will lead to less precipitation in this arid region. In fact, the West has been warming more rapidly than any part of the country except Alaska. According to a recent study by the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization and the Natural Resources Defense Council, the western United States has warmed 70 percent more than the global average.

We have already seen fairly dramatic evidence that climate change is taking a toll. A recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicates that mountain pine beetles are reproducing rapidly, because the long spells of subfreezing winter weather that limit the insects simply are not happening. These beetles are killing vast swaths of western forests, affecting more than 1.5 million acres of mature lodgepole pines in Colorado alone. State forestry experts predict that most of the state's pine forests may be dead in three to five years.

We also are witnessing changes in precipitation patterns that will affect agriculture and fast-growing western cities such as Phoenix, Las Vegas and Denver. Climate scientists believe that dry areas of the planet, like the West, are getting drier, while wetter areas, such as parts of the East Coast, are experiencing more intense rainstorms. Warming will influence the western recreation economy, which is based heavily on ski resorts, hunting and fishing. Climate researchers have documented that winter already is arriving later and spring earlier, shortening the ski season and changing animal migration patterns. Scientists predict the likelihood of more frequent prolonged droughts. The possiblility that you will initiate a program to reduce global warming offers hope to western realists who recognize the hazards we face as climate changes.

You also may be well advised to restore America's traditional understanding of land protection. Historically, our public lands have been managed for all Americans, not just for select industries. Our ethic of public lands shared by all--rich and poor, urban and rural, New Yorker and Californian--is a cornerstone of who we are as a people. During the past eight years, every attempt has been made to subvert this legacy as the Bush administration has sought to sell off national forests or to use an obscure federal law dating to the 1870s to give away to states, counties and even individual citizens any federal public land marked by a road of any kind. The administration also has supported the perpetuation of the federal Mining Act, which has governed mining on public lands virtually unchanged since 1872. It remains a giveaway to mining companies that has let the industry pollute public lands without compensating the public in even the most basic way: the payment of royalties on extracted minerals.

Our nation has now surpassed 300 million citizens. Under this press of humanity, opportunities to designate more wilderness are diminishing. To preserve wildlife corridors, habitat and recreational lands, the nation needs a president who will save as much undeveloped federal land as possible from the inroads of unnecessary development. Wide-open spaces are an increasingly rare and valuable commodity, at least as valuable as the more traditional commodities found within them. As Gifford Pinchot, the founder of the U.S. Forest Service, wrote, "No man can make his life what it ought to be by living it merely on a business basis. There are things higher than business."

Someday, the oil and gas will be gone. Here in the West, we're beginning to wonder if our wildlands and wildlife will go with them. Steve Torbit, a former state wildlife biologist who works for NWF in Colorado, says, "I'm concerned that the West that I was born into, and that I've lived in and explored and loved all my life, in fact isn't going to be there for the next generation if we don't do a better job of managing development."

There are many ways in which you can do it better. Provide incentives for people who are looking to get us out of this carbonocracy, our dependence on fossil fuels. Invest the nation in a new energy economy, and reduce subsidies for the dinosaur-driven status quo.

Mr. President, conservation is about sharing our resources with other creatures and with future generations. It is about conserving the beauty of our public lands by being better stewards and by rediscovering a balance we recently have lost. It is about honoring the future as well as meeting the needs of the present. As you prepare to step into office I hope you will design a legacy that will include wilderness and wildlife for future generations and not just oil rigs, gas drilling and a passion for preserving the fossil-fuel tradition.

Daniel Glick is a former correspondent for Newsweek magazine and the author of Monkey Dancing: A Father, Two Kids, and a Journey to the Ends of the Earth (PublicAffairs, 2003).

NWF Takes Action: Saving Wild Places

To achieve one of its top priorities--protecting wildlife habitat--NWF has joined with Trout Unlimited and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership to create Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development (www.sportsmen4responsibleenergy.org), a coalition committed to restoring multiple-use management on federally administered public lands and to balancing oil and gas drilling with wildlife needs. NWF community organizers and state affiliates in Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming also are working with hunters, anglers, wildlife watchers and other outdoor enthusiasts and community leaders to build a movement for better protection of public lands. NWF is supporting federal legislation to keep gas drilling from harming important wild areas, such as the Wyoming Range, Otero Mesa in New Mexico and Roan Plateau in Colorado. In court, the organization has challenged public-land development projects that threaten important wildlife habitats, such as intense natural gas drilling on sage-grouse leks in Wyoming's Red Desert. To learn more, visit our Public Lands section.

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