Road trippin' - Connecting the conservation dots in the West

Representatives from a host of local organizations gathered in a conference room on the Hip Strip to discuss their individual opinions on the importance of public lands in Montana.

Missoula Independent -

Last Thursday, representatives from a host of local organizations gathered in a conference room on the Hip Strip to discuss their individual opinions on the importance of public lands in Montana. Sarah Cobler of Montana Conservation Voters reminisced about her childhood spent hunting in the backcountry. Jennifer Ferenstein of the Wilderness Society emphasized the importance of holding certain industries accountable for how they impact the environment and making sure there are "clear sideboards on development when it does occur."

The goal of the meeting, at least for Center for Western Priorities Executive Director Trevor Kincaid, was to investigate what public lands mean to Montanans and how those sentiments can be used to strike a better balance between conservation and energy development. Kincaid likened it to handing each group "a megaphone," and the answers he heard varied.

"We know that we need good wildlife habitat," said Blake Henning of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, who added that many of his organization's members are employed in the oil and gas industry. "We can't have roads and drill pads and things like that everywhere. We've fostered good relationships with the oil and gas industry. Some of those companies have been very good supporters, very good donors to our programs over the years."

By Friday afternoon, Kincaid sat in front of a completely different group in Bozeman. He posed the same question, about what public lands and conservation meant, to local business people representing everything from marketing firms to fishing-gear giant Simms. Brickhouse Creative founder David Thompson answered with a story about an employee he'd recently hired who desired the quality of life offered by Montana's wild spaces over the hustle and bustle of southern California.

"The thread is that everyone is drawn to Montana's wilderness," Kincaid says. "Everyone's inspired by it. Many, many people who live here or moved here either came here for the quality of life and wilderness or have stayed here because of the quality of life and wilderness. People have different reasons for embracing it, and different uses for it."

Conservation has taken a road trip of sorts this month. From the offices of the Missoula-based Clark Fork Coalition to the Organ Mountains of southern New Mexico, the newly launched Equal Ground campaign is cruising the Intermountain West like a conservation combine, harvesting the voices of various community groups and attempting to bundle them into a unified message.

"It's an idea that a lot of people can get behind, because it's an idea that we used to do automatically: Responsibly balancing conservation with energy development," says Kincaid, one of the conservationists now riding inside the Equal Ground RV. "We did it for 30 years. We've gotten away from it, and this campaign simply asks that we get back to what succeeded before."

Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt coined the phrase "equal ground" this spring when he called for President Barack Obama to put conservation on even footing with the rampant oil and gas development that's swept Western states in recent years. Babbitt's speech inspired five conservation organizations—CWP, along with the Wilderness Society, the Conservation Lands Foundation, the Western Energy Project and the Center for American Progress—to unite under one banner. The Equal Ground campaign has since chastised Congress and the Obama administration for setting aside the least amount of protected land since the Reagan era, less than 2.6 million acres since 2008.

Compare that to nearly 6 million acres of federal land leased for oil and gas development, Kincaid says, and the scales are more uneven than ever before. That's the driving message behind the campaign's recently released Blueprint for Balance, a document outlining five suggestions for continuing down the path toward energy independence without sacrificing the nation's wild and pristine corners.

"If done responsibly, if done right, there are places that should be used for domestic energy production," Kincaid says. "We need it. But again, they should be done responsibly and done in a way that minimizes impact."

The point contrasts sharply with news from the oil and gas industry itself in recent years. Groups like the Western Energy Alliance have been maligning constant drops in federal acreage offered for lease since Obama took office. In Colorado alone, where Equal Ground made several stops this week, leases issued for drilling on federal lands were down nearly 70 percent last year over 2008.

Still, the White House has trumpeted steady drops in the country's dependence on foreign oil. National crude oil production has reached its highest levels since the late 1980s. And the Bakken formation in North Dakota and eastern Montana has accounted for considerable growth, with production there increasing an additional 1.4 percent just this June. Meanwhile, legislation aimed at protecting other pockets of federal land—such as the North Fork Watershed Protection Act and the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, both sponsored by Sen. Max Baucus—has failed to gain much traction in Congress.

"The conservation movement is a fabric that's composed of many local efforts," Kincaid says. "When you put all those together, those matchsticks, it makes a very bright light. Washington, for whatever reason, hasn't been able to see that. But hopefully they will."

According to polling conducted by Bozeman-based Headwaters Economics, Montana enjoyed higher growth in employment, population and personal income than non-Western states between 2000 and 2011. Kincaid, and those he's spoken to so far on the Equal Ground tour, attribute that growth directly to the state's wealth of preserved public land. The tour itself, he says, is primarily about "gathering the stories that prove those numbers true."