Reality Check: Wild Lands Policy Myth vs. Fact

A new Bureau of Land Management policy that protects millions of acres of wilderness quality lands across the West has come under attack.  Public support of the BLM’s Wild Lands policy is important because this new policy is our best shot at protecting many lands that we have fought to defend from degradation and abuse during the Bush administration.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar gave new hope these threatened wildlands in December, when he issued the Wild Lands Secretarial Order, requiring the BLM, our nation’s largest landlord, to inventory for lands with wilderness characteristics and consider protecting those lands from damaging activities such as oil and gas drilling and uncontrolled off-road vehicle use.

These wild lands opponents are working to influence Washington, and now some members of Congress are targeting the Wild Lands policy in upcoming legislation. They are threatening to prevent the BLM from implementing the policy by passing a “funding limitation” as part of the next continuing resolution — the bill that funds the federal government until the budget is approved.

The story wilderness opponents are telling about this needed policy is very different from the reality. We want to set the record straight. Here are the facts:

Myth: Protecting Wild Lands will hinder oil and gas development.
Fact: The oil industry already has stockpiles of lands it hasn’t developed.

The numbers paint a much different picture: In the five Rocky Mountain states with the most oil and gas development, 1% of land managed by the BLM is designated Wilderness, while 42% of the BLM’s land is leased to the oil and gas industry. The wilderness-quality lands that may be protected by the new policy comprise a small fraction of our public lands, especially when compared to the amount of land already being controlled by industry.

For example, in Colorado, citizens have proposed 693,783 acres of currently unprotected land for wilderness protection. By contrast, 4,632,382 acres have been leased to the oil and gas industry in that state.
Additionally, the oil and gas industry has 41 million acres under lease across the West, but is only drilling on 12 million acres. That means the industry is sitting on nearly 30 million acres of land — so there is clearly no shortage of places to drill.

Myth: Designating Wild Lands will hurt America’s economy.
Fact: Protecting land has proven economic benefits.

Oil and gas representatives, some western lawmakers, and other vocal wilderness opponents are already creating confusion around what the policy REALLY does, and have speculated that protecting Wild Lands could be bad for America.

Outdoor active recreation — such as hiking, hunting, and rafting — contributes $730 billion annually to the U.S. economy and supports nearly 6.5 million jobs. Millions of Americans treasure our western wildlands for opportunities to spend time in nature, and this outdoor tourism boosts local economies.

Economists have also found that rural counties with protected lands nearby, such as wilderness, experience greater economic growth than counties without. Our great American landscapes are important drivers for our economy, and this policy will help ensure they stay that way.

Myth: The Wild Lands policy is a federal land grab.
Fact: The policy applies to lands that are already public lands, and is based on existing laws.

Public lands are just that — public. These lands belong to the American people to use for multiple purposes. Lands that the BLM may designate as Wild Lands are already owned and managed by the federal government, but they belong to all Americans.

The truth is, the BLM’s Wild Lands policy only reinforces the BLM’s existing responsibility and authority regarding managing wilderness characteristics on the public–authority that the BLM had implemented for decades until it was effectively dismantled by the Bush administration in 2003.

The BLM is statutorily required to inventory the many resources it manages, including wilderness characteristics, and protect some lands in their natural condition as part of its multiple use mandate. This policy simply lays out how the agency will fulfill its duties. Furthermore, the policy ensures that public participation will be an integral part of the process for designating Wild Lands.