Millions of Americans are spending more time exploring the waters we fish in, the national parks we love, and the wild places near and far. The benefits of these activities are many and they bring to life the many local economies that depend on thriving outdoor recreation this year more than ever.
At the same time, many of those same public lands have long been important to the US energy portfolio. We believe communities thrive when energy development is done responsibly and balanced with the need for healthy lands, thriving fish and wildlife populations, and quality outdoor recreation experiences.
Unfortunately, outdated policies prioritize oil and gas development over other uses of public land. Spurred on by outdated federal rental policies – some of which date back more than a century – recent energy development proposals threaten the landscapes that Americans of all walks of life cherish.
While the Biden administration has undertaken a long-awaited review of the federal oil and gas program, we still grapple with the mistakes of the past and the policies that have opened up iconic landscapes to drilling and exploration.
In two particular landscapes – a prized mountain range in southwestern Montana and a unique national monument in eastern Utah – this reality is playing out today. These are case studies for the larger issues related to archaic oil and gas policies for public lands.
In southwestern Montana, the Forest Service is evaluating a proposal for exploratory drilling in the Tendoy Mountains. Oil and gas drilling is not normally associated with this region. Its streams are home to populations of native West Slope cutthroat trout – the state’s fish – and form the headwaters of the Beaverhead River, which attracts anglers from across the country. In addition, the water in the Beaverhead Valley is vital to the farms which, along with outdoor recreation, support the local economy.
But that could all change. Several years ago, despite objections from local fishermen and hunters, the Bureau of Land Management issued a block of leases in the Tendoys. Some of the leases were sold for the minimum allowable bid – just $ 2 / acre – while others sold “non-competitively”, meaning they did not auction and then went on to sell. was issued for only $ 1.50 / acre.
Meanwhile, in eastern Utah, the Bureau of Land Management is evaluating a proposed drilling project within half a mile of the western boundary of the National Park Service’s Dinosaur National Monument long after the expiration of the leases. The result could remove a “no-occupy area” restriction, allowing the construction of roads and well platforms on public lands rich in cultural sites, fossils and wildlife habitat. Energy development here not only poses a direct threat to these resources and the National Dinosaur Monument, but could also contribute to air pollution and water shortages in the Colorado River Basin. The agency estimates that nearly 1 million gallons, or about three acre-feet of fresh water, are needed to drill wells here.
Besides conservation values, there are other good reasons why leasing oil and gas near national parks and monuments has sparked controversy. These crown jewels of our public land system generate billions of dollars in revenue each year through outdoor recreation. Additionally, protected public lands are often the centerpiece of much larger landscapes, providing safe habitat for fish and wildlife and scenic views that draw millions of visitors each year.
These drilling proposals highlight fundamental flaws in the federal oil and gas leasing system. When public lands can be leased for as little as $ 1.50 / acre, it’s time to step back, take a close look at federal policies, and assess whether oil and gas is the most common use. high and best of our most precious public lands. This is especially true where there is little or no economically viable reserves of oil and gas.
The evaluation of the federal oil and gas program is long overdue. Oil and gas development is one of the many uses of our public lands – but only one – and public policy that made sense a century ago does not necessarily make sense today. This is essential in light of the administration’s recent decision decision repossess the lease of public land due to a court order.
The administration also cannot ignore the circumstances on the ground, where development proposals threaten places like the Tendoy Mountains and the National Dinosaur Monument.
We need to take care of our public lands so that future generations have the same outside access and opportunities as we do. It is time for Congress and the administration to come up with common sense solutions that usher in a new era of responsible energy development.
Matt Kirby is director of energy and landscape conservation at the National Parks Conservation Association.
Steve Kandell is Trout Unlimited’s Angler Conservation Project Director.