The federal agency that manages public lands across the West Slope and the western United States has long had a reputation for being in the back pocket of the energy industry, granting gas and oil wells pretty much anywhere companies like SG Interests and Encana want.
But there is a chance now for the Bureau of Land Management — the BLM — to change the way it does business that allows energy development while also supporting our recreation-based economies and protecting environmental, geologic and historic treasures across the West. Unfortunately, the agency’s record does not reflect the common-sense, win-win type of land management envisioned with a policy developed in 2010 by the agency’s leadership known as Master Leasing Plans.
For example, in 2008 the BLM allowed drilling for natural gas at the doorstep of Canyonlands National Park and on surrounding lands that draw hundreds of thousands of visitors to Moab each year. Today there is a well that is spitting distance from Canyonlands.
In 2012, here in Colorado, the BLM got into a tussle with the National Park Service over extensive drilling proposed near Mesa Verde National Park. The issue for the park service was simple: the closest wells would worsen the already deteriorating visibility and overall air quality. Can you imagine feeling like you’re in Denver on a bad smog day when you visit the Anasazi ruins?
And just last year, the BLM was ready to allow drill rigs next to the road into Dinosaur National Monument. The Green and Yampa river drainages, favorites for rafters and kayakers that also supply water to communities and agricultural, would have been affected as well.
Fortunately, the agency deferred action in all three places, providing at least temporary reprieve to geologic wonders like Delicate Arch near Moab, the Jurassic record at Dinosaur, and archaeological gems at Mesa Verde. But it acted only after a multitude of voices spoke against the development plans. It just doesn’t make sense that we have to shout, stomp and threaten lawsuits in order to get decision-makers to wake up to the public’s expectation for thoughtful management of our public lands.
The BLM is supposed to follow a “multiple use” ethic that, on the surface, sounds like it would support a balanced approach with land management decisions. Master Leasing Plans, that policy created in 2010, are a way for the agency to get past its historic bias.
When the BLM initiates a Master Leasing Plan for a specific area, like Dinosaur, it triggers a public process that allows comment from people who have a stake in how public lands are managed. In addition to the energy industry, the agency hears from agriculture, local government, the National Park Service, native peoples, businesses and many others.
This “smart from the start” policy allows the agency to locate energy development in appropriate places, and protect those areas that are best left undeveloped. Unfortunately, the state and local field offices of the BLM have been slow everywhere and in some places, like Mesa Verde, downright resistant, to utilize this option.
But there is hope. Colorado BLM is due to release the state’s first Master Leasing Plan in the Dinosaur area in the coming weeks. It’s important that the agency get this right and set a precedent for future plans in other parts of Colorado and surrounding states. This is the BLM’s chance to do oil and gas leasing in a manner that protects our treasured lands and watersheds as well as the vast recreation economy that supports so many of our communities.
So here is where I ask you to get involved. Send an email or letter to Sen. Mark Udall, BLM director Neil Kornze, or Department of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell (Kornze’s boss). Tell them its important that oil and gas development be managed responsibly, using Master Leasing Plans.
They can be reached at:
Neil Kornze, BLM: firstname.lastname@example.org or 1849 C Street NW, Rm. 5665, Washington DC 20240.
Sen. Mark Udall, www.markudall.senate.gov/?p=contact, or Hart Office Building Suite SH-730, Washington, D.C. 20510.