Expectations mix with wariness on Trump land policies
If the Trump administration acts like “Teddy Roosevelt Republicans” when it comes to public lands policies, as Trump himself has proclaimed, that appears to sit just fine with Western voters of all political stripes, according to the findings in a newly released poll.
The annual Conservation in the West Poll commissioned by Colorado College’s State of the Rockies Project and published Tuesday found that Republicans, Democrats and independents in seven Western states are more likely this year than last to identify as a “conservationist.”
Colorado in particular saw an increase in poll respondents identifying with a conservationist viewpoint, from 65 percent in 2016 to 74 percent in the latest poll that was conducted in late December and early January.
The poll also generally found that the voters, about a third each of whom identified as Republican, Democrat or independent, prefer a “centrist approach” to energy production on public lands, with 50 percent saying some public lands should be drilled while environmentally sensitive areas should be protected.
Only 9 percent of poll respondents said public lands should generally be open to oil and gas drilling, while 35 percent said there should be strict limits to drilling on public lands.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who joined a telephone press conference Tuesday to announce the results of the poll, said he hopes President Donald Trump and his pick to lead the Department of Interior, U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke of Montana, are true to their word in saying that they understand the importance of maintaining national parks, monuments and public lands in general.
“I do hope that they uphold their promise to follow in the footsteps of Theodore Roosevelt, the great protector of our public lands,” said Bullock, who’s a Democrat.
Ask just about anyone in western Colorado who uses public lands, benefits from them in some way, works to steer policy, or wants to see greater protections, and the expectations are mixed with some reservations about just what the new administration will do when it comes to leasing and development of those lands.
“Hopefully there will be an importance and priority put back on multiple use,” Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said. “There’s still a process you have to go through for anything that happens on public lands, and we all understand that.
“But the last administration seemed to have more priority on wilderness and taking lands out of the multiple use category,” said the Republican county commissioner who, as general manager and part owner of Sunlight Mountain Resort ski area, is also a permittee with the U.S. Forest Service.
About 60 percent of Garfield County is made up of federal land, which supports everything from energy development, livestock grazing and timber sales to skiing and outfitting for various types of recreational uses, all of which require leases or permitting from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management or the Forest Service.
Jankovsky was critical of the Obama administration on issues ranging from mandating what he called “top-down” policies out of Washington, D.C., for things like protecting the greater sage grouse to limits on oil and gas leasing. He believes state and local governments should have a greater role in helping determine those policies.
However, “I do not, by any means, support turning public lands over to the states,” Jankovsky said of another controversial policy question that’s already started to gain some traction among Republicans now that the party controls both houses of Congress and the White House.
“I don’t think that’s wise,” he said of the push to transfer federal lands to states, which could in turn sell them to private interests.
That’s something that also worries Will Roush, conservation director for the Carbondale-based group the Wilderness Workshop.
“It’s great to see Rep. Zinke supporting public lands and supporting keeping those lands in federal hands,” Roush said. “Being from Montana, he gets that his constituents also value those lands.”
At the same time, he said he was concerned when Zinke stated during his recent confirmation hearings that he would consider “co-management” of some lands between the states and federal agencies.
“I don’t support that idea at all and think it’s a real slippery slope,” Roush said. “That could lead to a mish-mash of different protections and regulations from state to state, and that’s not good for wildlife and ecosystems that don’t recognize state lines.”
Roush said it also seems “pretty clear” that the Trump administration will make a bigger push for fossil fuel leasing, including for oil and gas and coal, on public lands.
“We are starting to think how we can push back on that to ensure basic protections for wildlife, clean air and clean water are maintained,” he said. “There has been a lot of rhetoric about cutting regulations, but when you do that, unfortunately you’re talking about getting rid of protections that safeguard our health and undermine the other values that we enjoy with our public lands.”
David Ludlam, executive director for the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said he believes the Trump administration will help put Colorado on “equal footing” with other energy-producing states that don’t have to rely on federal land leasing for a large portion of their energy resources as Colorado does.
“It’s important to note that 80 percent of all revenue generated from BLM land comes from natural gas and oil production, and that it’s the second-largest contributor to the U.S. Treasury,” Ludlam said. The Internal Revenue Service, the federal tax collection agency, is the largest contributor.
“There is a correlation to what happens on public lands and the human benefits that come from that,” he said. “But if you look at states like Arkansas and Texas, permits are issued in a matter of weeks … and there’s a disconnect with what we can do.
“I think the new administration understands that and will promulgate policies to help with more development of our resources,” Ludlam said.
But Greg Zimmerman, deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities, believes the so-called “war on oil” claimed by President Trump and some Republicans in Congress is a myth. He points to data showing that oil and gas companies passed on most public land leases offered at auction in recent years amid record oil production.
He said oil and gas companies are sitting on more than 19 million acres of unused public land leases. Some 7,500 approved drilling permits on U.S. public lands have not been developed, lending credence to the argument that new leasing should be limited and certain areas protected.
“Zinke has said he supports opening up vast swaths of land to oil and gas leasing, when 90 percent of that land is already open to drilling,” Zimmerman said. “I see a lot of places where it would seem they will not uphold the Teddy Roosevelt legacy regarding public lands.”
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