The State of Public Lands: A mixed bag for 2011

As President Obama gives his annual State of the Union address, those of us at The Wilderness Society feel the timing is urgent to give our own “State of Public Lands” briefing.

As the nation's premiere public lands conservation organization, we’re happy to report that the Obama administration has begun to correct the most industry-centric land policies of the Bush era, a time when vast tracks of the nation’s wildlands were offered on a platter to oil and gas development.

However, we know that big industry and its political friends are already promising to mount a campaign during this Congress to halt this return to balance. Wilderness supporters need to be prepared for the backlash.

You can help by learning more about what’s at stake and joining our WildAlert community to take action on the important issues below.

The state of our wildlands in 2011

Alaska wildlands

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by JGHurst, Flickr.Good news: Since the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was created 50 years ago, this astounding land of dramatic Arctic beauty and fragile wildlife habitat has been under threat from those who wish to open it to oil and gas leasing. In 2010 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommended the Refuge’s coastal plain for Congressional protection as a federally designated Wilderness area. Such designation would finally place the refuge off limits to oil and gas development.

Of concern: Recommendations for Wilderness protections for the coastal plain of the refuge still must be passed by Congress. Until Congress passes such protections, the oil and gas industry will continue to lobby for access to the refuge’s fragile lands.

What we’re doing: Last year, our members sent tens of thousands of letters to Congress urging for passage of Wilderness protection for the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. We will continue to apply the pressure until this irreplaceable wild land is finally protected from oil and gas development.

The Western Arctic’s Coastal Plain

Good news: This Indiana-sized area on northern Alaska’s Arctic coast is home to some of the most sensitive wildlife and bird habitat in the Arctic. Many animals, including caribou and endangered polar bears depend upon this land. Like the BLM lands in the lower 48 states, portions of the Western Arctic’s coastal plain, also known as the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska, are open to oil and gas development. Parts of the reserve are at risk to development, but the good news is the Obama Administration has shown good judgment in keeping some of the area’s most sensitive lands off-limits to leasing. Pressure to drill should also decrease with the recent USGS report that revises the estimated oil supply in the reserve to 90 percent less than originally thought.

What we’re doing: In 2010 our members sent thousands of letters asking the administration to continue to protect the most sensitive areas of the reserve. We will continue to encourage these protections.

Alaska’s Arctic waters

Chukchi Sea. Courtesy USFWS.Of great concern: Under the Bush Administration, sensitive, wildlife-rich Arctic waters north of Alaska were leased for oil and gas drilling, without an accurate environmental review. Fortunately, the Obama administration postponed some of the scheduled oil and gas development immediately after the Gulf oil spill- but the threat of drilling rigs in the Arctic Ocean still looms.

An oil spill in these sensitive waters of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas could be devastating – there still isn’t a thorough review of the environmental resources, and there is no known technology for cleaning up oil in ice-filled waters.

What we’re doing: The Wilderness Society has helped keep the rigs out of the Arctic – by forcing the government to conduct the required environmental review that was neglected during Bush years. We also mounted a public letter writing campaign in which our members and supporters sent tens of thousands of letters to the administration to halt drilling in other portions that were slated to be developed last summer. The recent report from the commission investigating the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico called for a full environmental review of the Arctic before even considering drilling there – and even then cautioned against drilling in the frigid Arctic waters.

Deep pocketed oil and gas companies will undoubtedly continue to leverage every last resource to ensure access. We will continue to keep the pressure on to keep the drill rigs out--until it is clear that drilling can be done safely with minimal risk of spills and blowouts.

Rocky Mountain West and other lands

A mountain goat in the Rockies. Photo by Randy Pfaff.Good news: In January, 2010, The Wilderness Society and other conservation groups celebrated when the Interior Department decided to revise damaging oil and gas leasing policies that allowed nearly unfettered access to lands throughout the Rocky Mountain West to the oil and gas industry. A new policy now requires the BLM to conduct adequate environmental reviews and include greater public input before leasing the lands that belong to all Americans.

Of concern: The oil and gas industry still has tremendous access to the nation’s public lands, yet it continues to push for more. Oil and gas companies have been stockpiling leases for years while saying conservationists are locking up lands they need. Yet, in 2010, a whopping two-thirds of oil and gas leases on public lands sat idle. In fact, according to the BLM’s statistics, only 1,480 of the 4,090 approved permits for 2010 were actually used.

What we’re doing: We continue to work with the Interior Department to ensure lands are managed not only for energy development but for multiple uses, included preservation and recreation, as is required by law. We are committed to ensuring that energy development on our public lands happens at the right pace and the right places.

Western lands and renewable energy

Solar system in Colorado. Photo by Dave Parsons, Courtesy NREL.Good news: In 2009, the Department of Interior issued an order directing the agency to quickly move forward with developing renewable energy on public lands.

Of concern: Problems may arise from moving forward without first considering where and how to best site these projects. Sensitive habitats and scenic lands can be damaged by renewable energy infrastructure.

What we’re doing: We fully support the swift transition to renewable energy, but to ensure this energy source is developed smartly, and with minimal impact to sensitive wildlands, we’ve worked closely with the Interior Department to make recommendations about the safest places to site renewable energy projects.

We continue to urge the Interior Department to make good on the early promise of doing renewable ‘smart from the start’ and to avoid the old oil and gas approach of making all lands available and subsequently losing control. We have identified zones throughout several western states that are best suited for solar energy development and are encouraging the BLM to use those zones.

Iconic western landscapes

Red rock canyon country. Photo by Peter Rivera, Flickr.Good news: Threatened Bureau of Land Management areas like Utah’s red rock canyon lands, Wyoming’s unique Adobe Town badlands and New Mexico’s last Chihuahua grasslands at Otero Mesa have a chance at gaining protection from destructive development through a new policy that allows the BLM to essentially reinstate its ability to protect special wild lands — a capability that was stripped from the agency during the Bush years. The new policy ensures the BLM can manage the land for multiple uses — not just energy development — and protect especially wild and sensitive areas.

Of concern: The BLM has discretion over how it will implement the new ‘Wild Lands’ policy to protect special places. Currently, the agency is developing guidance which will determine criteria for deciding which lands to protect, but it’s unknown how strong the guidance will be. Also, opponents in Congress indicate they’ll fight the new policy. Some are promising to attempt to restrict funding to the BLM if it implements the policy.

What we’re doing: We’re working to strengthen the BLM’s new policy by advising the agency as it works to create the guidance documents for implementing the policy. We’ve launched a major letter writing campaign to ensure the BLM includes strong and meaningful use of its new ability to protect wild lands.

Through all of this work, The Wilderness Society is working to ensure that public lands remain just that — public. Encompassing hundreds of millions of acres, our public lands hold a wealth of natural resources and values. They provide clean drinking water for countless rural and urban communities, clean air to breathe, fish and wildlife habitat for thousands of wild species — including hundreds of endangered species — and outdoor recreation opportunities used every year by tens of millions of Americans.

We are counting on the administration, both aisles of Congress, and our own supporters to help our communities know the values these lands have.

You can help by joining our WildAlert list or donating today.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by JGHurst, Flickr.
Chukchi Sea. Courtesy USFWS.
A mountain goat in the Rockies. Photo by Randy Pfaff.
Solar system in Colorado. Photo by Dave Parsons, Courtesy NREL.
Red rock canyon country. Photo by Peter Rivera, Flickr.