Finding balance on energy development and wildlife

Finding balance on energy development and wildlife

Can our nation’s magnificent public lands, unrivaled outdoor recreation experiences, and healthy wildlife populations coexist with oil and gas drilling and production? The answer is a qualified “yes” — but finding that balance doesn’t happen by chance.

That’s why we urge the Department of Interior not to abandon energy planning that safeguards our natural resources, while avoiding conflict and meeting our energy needs.

As sportsmen, we agree with Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeUndoing the damage Pruitt and Zinke did to our environment The Hill's 12:30 Report — Flynn awaits sentencing | White House signals it wants to avoid shutdown The Hill's Morning Report — What a shutdown would mean for the government MORE that hunting and fishing on public lands are a cornerstone of our outdoor heritage — and we applaud his commitment to expanding hunting and angling opportunities on public lands.


But the Interior Department’s proposal to abandon responsible, “smart from the start” energy development guidelines for public lands, previously called master leasing plans, on top of congressional repeal of the first update of planning rules in 30 years, could seriously damage the health of our most valuable wildlife and fish habitat and undermine those very outdoor opportunities.


A recent report by the Interior Department takes aim at what it sees as obstacles to energy development on public lands. The report recommends eliminating upfront stakeholder planning and returning to the archaic and chaotic planning practices from the 1980s.

Upfront planning, done before leases are approved, includes identifying important wildlife and recreation areas and working through potential conflicts, giving local communities, sportsmen and women, private landowners and others more opportunity to be heard and more certainty going forward for oil and gas operators. It also drastically reduces regulatory uncertainty and litigation risk for industry.

To be clear: Most sportsmen support responsible energy development on our public lands — but only if it’s done in a careful, balanced way, with planning upfront to identify areas suitable for oil and gas production and to protect areas that have sensitive fish and wildlife habitat, water, and other resources. Sportsmen also believe that some lands are not suitable for energy development and should be off limits, including essential fish and wildlife habitat and sensitive backcountry.

This balanced, thoughtful approach has been successful on many of our public lands. A report released last year by 19 sportsmen's organizations and businesses featured several examples of responsible oil and gas siting — as well as cases highlighting the serious consequences of poor management.

In the West, we have seen what happens without thoughtful planning — and the results are not pretty.

In northwest Colorado’s Piecance Basin, for instance, a drilling boom transformed parts of one of the state’s most vibrant wildlife areas — described by hunters as a “mule deer factory” — into an industrial zone pockmarked by drilling pads and roads. The reckless development has contributed to the decline of one of the country’s largest mule deer herds, which dropped from more than 100,000 mules at one point to current estimates of 30,000. The Roan Plateau, an important stronghold for native cutthroat trout, was also threatened by the encroaching drilling sites. 

In Wyoming’s Pinedale area, the failure to implement careful siting guidelines led to unbridled energy development, with the original authorized 750 oil and gas wells expanding to more than 4,000 — seriously damaging local air quality and disrupting ancient wildlife migration routes.

By contrast, Colorado’s South Park area has seen diverse stakeholders, including sportsmen, ranchers and rural communities, come together to agree on responsible guidelines for “smart-from-the-start” energy development. They are working to make sure that oil and gas production moves forward while safeguarding the area’s world-class trout fishery, important deer and elk habitat and streams and lakes that supply much of the Denver area’s drinking water.

We agree that there are opportunities to make leasing review processes more efficient and predictable. But that shouldn’t mean abandoning much of the recent progress toward implementing collaborative planning processes that avoid damage to critical habitats, improve restoration and mitigation efforts, and hold developers accountable — especially at a time when the Interior Department is increasing the number of leasing opportunities.

As Ronald Reagan said decades ago, “Preservation of our environment is not a partisan challenge; it’s common sense. Our physical health, our social happiness, and our economic well-being will be sustained only by all of us working in partnership as thoughtful, effective stewards of our natural resources.” 

Sportsmen want to keep working with the Interior Department to find the right balance between our energy needs and the needs of fish, wildlife, and the booming recreation economy.

But those solutions must be based on sound science, smart planning, and responsible stewardship.

Chris Wood is CEO of Trout Unlimited. Collin O’Mara is president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. Whit Fosburgh is president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. Trout Unlimited, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and the National Wildlife Federation are members of Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development, a coalition of more than 1,500 businesses, organizations and individuals dedicated to conserving irreplaceable habitats so future generations can hunt and fish on public lands.