Reclaiming multiple-use on our public lands

A story in the New Yorker this week reports that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is providing "vision" cards to its employees.  They depict a winding river and foothills which could pass as a scenic Idaho landscape, except on this same card there is now also an "oil rig." This card is meant to remind employees of their mission of multiple-use land management on public lands across the West.  

Courtesy of PEER.org

Courtesy of PEER.org

The Washington Post unveiled these vision cards and then the New Yorker published a provocative piece this week titled, "Ryan Zinke's American Fire Sale," by Carolynn Kormann. The article uncovers a pro-energy and pro-development administration's top-down efforts to rebrand our public lands and their land management practices, replete with updated BLM branding cards. For some, this doesn't come as a surprise, as Trump made clear in an early executive order his commitment to “promoting energy independence and economic growth,"  and directed Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, to “suspend, revise, or rescind” any guidelines that have imposed “regulatory burdens” on the oil, natural-gas, and mining industries. For others, it is further evidence of an administration's effort to ignore the myriad of land uses, values, and requests that compete with energy and development on our public lands. 

The BLM's multiple-use mission was set in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 and mandates the BLM manage public land resources for a variety of uses, such as energy development, livestock grazing, recreation and timber harvesting, while protecting a wide array of natural, cultural and historical resources. It states, "The Bureau of Land Management's mission is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations." While the new Trump-era, Zinke inspired "vision" card can be dismissed as simply a card, it doesn't stop there. Kormann reports BLM posters depicting conservation landmarks, such as a federally protected red-rock canyon, have been swapped out for ones showing a towering black coal bed and a yellow haul truck.

There are so many other stakeholders and beneficiaries, like outdoor recreation and renewable energies, not accounted for in this narrow Trump-era vision of our public lands. The outdoor recreation economy depends on healthy public lands.  A new Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) report out this year shows the outdoor recreation economy alone accounted for 2 percent of the GDP in 2016. Compare this to oil and gas, and mining extraction which accounted for 1.4 percent of GDP in 2016.  Consider reports from the BLM that say, "An estimated 43 percent of the public lands in Wyoming have wind energy development potential."  Energy development is no longer defined by oil rigs. Multiple-use land management must be about long-term asset management for future generations, not short term gains. 

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Reading Kormann's article it's hard not to feel like she is confirming a worst case scenario that one couldn't imagine unfolding at a federal agency overseeing one of our country's greatest historical legaciesour public lands. Trump and Zinke have managed to forge an aggressive and what some might call a winning strategy of deregulation that has eliminated "two million acres from the nation's protected areas, and offered another 11.6 million acres of largely wild public lands to oil-and-gas prospectors."  The land nominated for leasing also no longer requires a pre-sale environmental assessment.    

We witnessed first hand last year the Trump administration's decision to ignore conservation groups, recreational users, and local tribes when it decided to shrink Bear's Ears National Monument, largely at the urging of oil and mining interests. Kormann confirms what others have reported, but seem to only want to surmise—the sale of public lands and shrinking of monuments in Utah fits the parameters of a very nice and convenient energy postal stamp. "In late March, the B.L.M. sold leases on fifty thousand acres of public lands in southeastern Utah, over the protests of tribal leaders, conservationists, and, most notable, another agency within the Interior Department—the National Park Service. Some of the parcels are located within a few miles of the original boundaries of Bears Ears; others are adjacent to Hovenweep, a national monument containing the ruins of six prehistoric Native American villages."  

Korann exposes how at risk our public lands are in the West, which should give us plenty of reasons to remain steadfast and vigilant in our efforts to defend our public lands right here in Idaho.  One of the hallmark of our Western states is our huge surplus of leased, but undeveloped oil-and-gas parcels.  Many of these leased parcels aren't being developed due to energy prices and energy surplus. While Trump and Zinke continue to use “energy independence and economic growth” to justify the sale of lands and leases, a dark picture emerges of a very unbalanced, what I'll call, "lease-and-lose it" public land management model.  If one were to look for the silver lining, it might appear to be that the government is receiving industry money from various leases, while the land stays undeveloped and preserved for recreation, or other uses.  However, Kormann manages to expose the fault even in this kind of thinking:

"If the leased land isn’t going to be developed anyway, why shouldn’t the government make some money from all that unused space? Isn’t that a win-win? Absolutely not, Bloch and Nada Culver, the Wilderness Society’s senior counsel, told me [Kormann]. Once the land is leased, they noted, the B.L.M. has a legal obligation to see that it delivers what the lessee wants. In addition, the agency most often sells its leases without any stipulation preventing surface occupancy, meaning that some development—clearing brush, building roads, drilling wells—may occur. Once that happens, any possibility of using the land for conservation or recreation, or preserving it because it is sacred to local tribal groups, goes out the window."

What Korann's article doesn't bring to light are any bipartisan alternatives to challenge Trump's priorities for our public lands. It is helpful to realize the preservation of our public lands have historically been driven by strong bipartisan support.  It's time to reinvigorate and reclaim a multiple-use public land model that unites a vast array of individuals, businesses, scientists, conservationists, public health officials and industries to support our public lands.  Together, we provide a strong united voice, as well as the economic, social and conservation framework to justify the return of a multi-use land management systemone that values and can support our public lands as a long term asset, rather than a short-term energy play.