Enviros urge Obama to create monuments, protect lands

"There’s a gold rush mentality right now in our public lands and that mentality not only puts the energy boom at risk of bust but it also has real costs to America’s recreation, tourism and outdoor economy," Wilderness Society President Jamie Williams

The Salt Lake Tribune - Thomas Burr

Washington » Environmental groups are leaning on President Barack Obama to use his authority to preserve more open space, raise royalty and rental rates for oil and gas leases and establish a mitigation fee for energy exploration.

In its "Blueprint for Balance," the groups, including the liberal Center for American Progress and the Wilderness Society, say that the Obama administration needs to act to ensure America’s treasured landscapes are not ruined by development and that long-lasting outdoor recreation opportunities exist for future generations.

"There’s a gold rush mentality right now in our public lands and that mentality not only puts the energy boom at risk of bust but it also has real costs to America’s recreation, tourism and outdoor economy," Wilderness Society President Jamie Williams told reporters Tuesday. "The bottom line is we need to be as intentional about conservation as we are about energy development, putting conservation on equal ground with development."

Obama can, the groups say, take action on most of the suggestions in their report, though starting a mitigation fund may have to go through Congress. While environmentalists usually align with Democrats on issues, the coalition is making its argument noting that the Obama administration is doling out energy exploration leases 2.5 times faster than it is protecting federal lands as wilderness or monuments.

Included in the report to be released on Wednesday, the groups urge the Obama administration to:

» Create more national monuments, including around Desolation Canyon in Utah, to protect against any drilling. The president has the unilateral power under the Antiquities Act to do so.

» Hike royalty rates oil and gas companies pay to Interior so that taxpayers get a fair return, and update rules on measuring output of those drilling sites.

» Boost rates charged for leases on public lands to prod companies to drill or move on.

» Establish a mitigation fee for oil or gas exploration to offset impacts of drilling or mining.

The environmentalists argue that such moves would bring balance to the issue, and aimed their report more at Obama than Congress, which in its last session, didn’t set aside a single piece of wilderness. That was the first time since the end of World War II that happened.