In light of the industrialization happening around him in the early 1900s, Leopold inspired the collaboration that protected the world’s first Wilderness area. The Gila Wilderness in New Mexico was – and is today -- a refuge for wildlife and the preservation of wilderness hunting skills.
Instead of trying to control wildlife as if it were livestock, he wrote the first textbook on wildlife management. He pioneered the notion that we could see ourselves and nature as part of the same system – a system that needed to be in balance. This notion of a “biotic community” as he called it, was a radical idea at the time. You might say it still is.
But Leopold’s vision of balance is not.
According to a May 2013 survey of voters in nine Western states, a majority of Americans (55 percent) say the government should put conservation on equal ground with drilling for oil and gas on our public lands. This is the case among independents (59 percent), Republicans (64 percent), hunters and anglers (57 percent), and even among people who rate oil and gas as very important to them personally (57 percent).
It matters a lot what people in the West think about these issues, because our way of life is at stake. Oil and gas development is important, but we have to strike the right balance. As the poll respondents said: some places are just too special to drill – which echoes a concept I’ve often heard from other hunters and anglers: “responsible drilling means there are some places you don’t drill.”
Leopold asked, “Do we not already sing our love for and obligation to the land of the free and the home of the brave? Yes, but just what and whom do we love?”
I’d say we love the Rio Grande and the Gila River where we fish with our families. We love the Valle Vidal, or “Valley of Life,” which hunters led the charge to successfully protect from coal-bed methane drilling; legislation preserving the area was signed into law by President George W. Bush.
Clearly, protecting the most prized of our public lands here in New Mexico and across the West can be done alongside oil and gas development.
A new report offers some commonsense suggestions: conserving valuable hunting grounds like the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks where an outdoor way of life can continue; protecting backcountry areas for wildlife and sportsmen, and mandating that conservation and recreation be part of any planning process around oil and gas development on public lands.
I encourage the White House, Interior Secretary Jewell, Congress, and all of our policymakers to continue to work to balance energy development and conservation. By doing so, we can leave a legacy for our children and grandchildren that would make Leopold proud and achieve the conservation legacy of harmony that he championed.
Vesbach is executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation.