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Ryan Zinke

U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaks to reporters Feb. 9 at a convention in Salt Lake City. 

The Associated Press

There’s a reason why we don’t put our schools next to sewage treatment facilities or neighborhoods next to manufacturing plants. The unsightly, unpleasant and dangerous should not be near areas where we work, play and live.

The same “good neighbor” principle should apply to our national public lands, especially when it comes to leasing them to oil and gas companies.

And it did, until about a month ago when Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke decided to give special interests in the oil and gas industry a leg up on leasing more public lands for drilling, even if it threatens the tourism, hunting, fishing, camping and hiking industries that support small businesses and drive local Western economies. In doing so, Secretary Zinke eliminated several avenues for his agency to receive feedback about leasing from local communities and the broader public.

Through the Bureau of Land Management’s leasing process, oil and gas companies nominate public land that they’re interested in developing to be sold at auction. The lease allows private companies to extract oil and natural gas.

In the past, the BLM would sell the leases for drilling with few questions asked and without examining how industrial drilling activities could conflict with outdoor recreation, wildlife and drinking water. As a result of the oil industry-driven process, many leases were granted in areas that threatened local wildlife, polluted air, risked sensitive water supplies and compromised local economies.

In 2010, after a series of misguided leases were granted within view of Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, the BLM introduced a policy tool called a Master Leasing Plan, which brought local stakeholders together to strike an appropriate balance between energy development, conservation and outdoor recreation. Public input and information are critical to the success of MLPs, which outline the potential for impacts and avoid unnecessary conflicts between oil and gas extraction and other uses of the land before leasing occurs. It was a “smart from the start” planning approach to managing competing uses and interests.

MLPs have been wildly successful in communities where they were utilized in the West, giving local stakeholders a say in how the land in their backyard is used. In Moab, Utah, an MLP was finalized at the end of 2016 and endorsed by over 75 local businesses and local governments, including the city of Moab and Grand County. It allowed for responsible energy development, but in a way that ensured iconic sites near national parks and popular recreation areas are protected from drilling.

In Wyoming, elected officials from Sweetwater County and the cities of Rock Springs and Green River were eager for the BLM to complete an MLP for Greater Little Mountain. They believed public input was essential to ensure any development in the popular hunting and fishing grounds respected and preserved the area’s rich outdoor experiences.

Those plans came to a sudden halt when Secretary Zinke eliminated Master Leasing Plans and shut the door on meaningful public input. Under Secretary Zinke, local participation and environmental review of potential lease sales on public lands are now optional. Years of hard work and collaboration by community leaders are now in jeopardy, and the risk of “bad neighbor” impacts on public lands have grown as a result.

Secretary Zinke says that keeping the public silent and in the dark is needed to “alleviate unnecessary impediments and burdens, to expedite the offering of lands for lease.” But at a time when the industry is sitting on nearly 8,000 unused drilling permits—including over 2,000 in Wyoming—and nearly 15 million acres of unused leases nationally, it certainly does not seem like there are many “impediments and burdens” keeping oil and gas companies from securing leases.

The controversial decision to roll back MLPs adds to a growing list of actions made by the secretary without public input and in defiance of local communities. One year into his tenure as Secretary of the Interior, Zinke is showing the American people that rather than listening to the West, the only voices that really matter belong to the oil and gas industry.

That is no way to be a good neighbor to the small businesses choosing to locate next to public lands and recreation areas or to the millions of Americans who come to our public lands to hunt, fish, camp, bike, tour the outdoors and boost local economies.

Greg Zimmerman is the deputy director at the Center for Western Priorities, a public lands policy organization. Greg is based in Ridgway, Colorado.


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