David Lien and Ed Arnett: Thoughtful oil and gas planning needed across the West

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As dedicated hunters and anglers gear up for another season, we understand the challenges facing fish and wildlife populations today. We know that failure to take care of our land and water in a responsible manner can diminish opportunities in the field for sportsmen. One of the biggest challenges to land and water conservation in the 21st century is the push for energy exploration. An energy policy that balances Americans’ needs for domestic energy with the conservation of intact tracts of fish and wildlife habitat on our public lands is essential to upholding our sporting traditions.

When it comes to conserving landscapes and facilitating responsible energy development, master leasing plans probably are one of the best ideas you’ve never heard of. Developed by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 2010, the master leasing plan and other reforms to the leasing process aim to incorporate advance planning into the current process undertaken to lease public lands for oil and gas development.

The goal of master leasing plans is to identify areas that should be conserved, areas appropriate for oil and gas development and potential areas of conflict before the federal government leases any public land for oil and gas development. The intent is to conserve prized public lands while also developing resources responsibly — instead of stumbling through the cumbersome leasing process that now fosters protests and stalls development. Master leasing plans also provide the Bureau of Land Management with an opportunity to better coordinate with state wildlife agencies so that its land use planning meets state wildlife management objectives.

Thoughtful oil and gas planning is needed across the West, especially in Colorado. Time and again, the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management office has announced it will make public lands available for oil and gas development only to incite a backlash because of potential impacts on ranchers and farmers, wildlife habitat and local economies.

The local BLM office has subsequently pulled back many of its proposed lease sales, including controversial leases proposed on public land within the most prized trophy deer and elk units in the state of Colorado (GMU 1, 2 and 10) — units dedicated hunters wait upwards of 10 to 20 years to hunt. Yet, the Colorado BLM office hasn’t been willing to develop master leasing plans in many areas like North Park where it easily could avoid conflict with some advance planning and public input.

Fortunately, in Colorado’s South Park, an area prized by sportsmen for its world-class fisheries and healthy pronghorn, mule deer and elk herds, the BLM has suggested it soon may undertake the process of developing a master leasing plan.

In the past 15 years, more than 40 million acres of our Western public lands have been leased for development. Without balanced policies in place, public lands with prime wildlife habitat are increasingly at risk, and irreplaceable opportunities for hunting and fishing — the reason many of us choose to live and vacation here — may be lost forever.

We realize Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has been at her post only a few months. But her thoughtful approach can make a critical difference in restoring balance to America’s energy policy. We encourage Secretary Jewell to issue a directive for the BLM to implement the leasing reforms already on the books, and start developing master leasing plans. Such a secretarial order could ensure potential impacts to recreational opportunities, public lands habitat for big game and other wildlife, and clean water are considered in all oil and gas planning processes undertaken on her watch.

Domestic energy development and hunting and fishing are both critical to our way of life, and our Western economy. When conservation and development are on equal ground, we’ll have a secure future.

David Lien is the co-chairman of Colorado Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. Ed Arnett is the director of the Center for Responsible Energy Development of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

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