Weighing the future of our big outdoors

Today, debate has begun to rage around a new policy adopted by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, himself a westerner and rancher. This policy directs the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the landlord for the largest portion of western public lands, to inventory road-less and wild lands under its jurisdiction, and then, with public input, make informed decisions about those lands' management.

Congress already requires that the BLM "prepare and maintain on a continuing basis an inventory of all public lands and their resource and others values." As such, the BLM already inventories timber, water resources, grasslands with potential for livestock grazing, and all kinds of recreational resources. Such inventories are simply good sense management. But in 2003, a backroom deal between various stakeholders stated that there should no longer be inventory of wilderness, leaving the agency without direction for dealing with these valuable natural wild lands. The new Interior directive simply reinstates BLM's authority to consider wilderness values, in accordance with existing laws.

Nonetheless, some opponents have already ratcheted up the intensity of their rhetoric, suggesting that the new policy is going to lead to a sweeping "lock up" of natural resources and hurt rural economies.  In truth, the new BLM policy does none of those things.

In the first place, ranchers, whose livelihood drives much of the rural economies in the West, will still be able to graze livestock on these lands.  Secondly, much of our public land has already been committed to intensive resource development, so this policy would do nothing to prevent that development from continuing.  In New Mexico, where the BLM administers 13.4 million acres, 40 percent of those acres are already leased to oil and gas companies for drilling purposes, while a paltry 1 percent of those acres are protected as “wilderness.” In Colorado, 4.5 million acres are under lease. These leases commit our public lands to a single use; and few of us would choose a drilling area for a hiking or hunting trip or family picnic.

As Members of Congress, we are called upon to consider many public land issues, and ultimately, only Congress can designate lands as “wilderness.” But to do so, we must have the most up-to-date and scientific information about the nation's public lands, as well as the opportunity to seek public input on the best usage of particular wild lands. By providing better and more complete resource inventory data, the BLM policy can only help us, both Republicans and Democrats, as we listen to our constituents and weigh such choices. Recently we saw this process yield successful designations for beautiful wild lands in Dominguez Canyon in Colorado, Ojito in New Mexico, and the Coyote Mountains in Arizona.

Lastly, the wild lands covered by the BLM policy not only provide serene beauty, their protection can strengthen local economies. From hunting and fishing guides and outfitters, to outdoors equipment stores, bait and tackle shops, gas stations and grocery stores in rural towns, the dollars of outdoor users keep cash registers ringing. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, outdoor recreation (excluding motorized recreation) contributes $10 billion annually to Colorado's economy and supports over 107,000 jobs. As the BLM moves forward with resource management plans, it should consider all potential public uses for lands under its purview, uses that include hunting and fishing, hiking and camping, and other types of wilderness recreation.

As this debate continues, let's not lose sight of why we westerners choose to live and raise our families amid the splendors of the wide open spaces; and why others from across the country come to visit and support our western communities.

Reps. Raul Grijalva, Diana DeGette, Jared Polis, Ben Ray Lujan and Martin Heinrich are Democrats from Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico.