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Oil and gas drilling is getting dangerously close to our national parks

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Millions of Americans are spending more time exploring the waters we fish, the national parks we enjoy and wild places near and far. The benefits of these activities are numerous and they breathe life into the many local economies that depend on booming outdoor recreation — this year more so than ever.

At the same time, many of these same public lands have long been important to America’s energy portfolio. We believe that communities thrive when energy development is responsibly done, and balanced with the need for healthy lands, thriving fish and wildlife populations, and quality outdoor recreation experiences.

Unfortunately, outdated policies prioritize oil and gas development over other public land uses. Spurred by antiquated federal leasing policies — some of which are over a century old — recent energy development proposals threaten the landscapes Americans from all walks of life cherish. 

While the Biden administration has undertaken a long-overdue review of the federal oil and gas program, we are still grappling with the mistakes of the past and policies that have opened iconic landscapes to drilling and exploration.

In two special landscapes — a prized mountain range in southwestern Montana and a unique national monument in eastern Utah — this reality is playing out today. They are case studies for the larger problems with antiquated oil and gas policies for public lands. 

In southwestern Montana, the Forest Service is weighing an exploratory drilling proposal in the Tendoy Mountains. Oil and gas drilling is not normally associated with this region. Its streams support populations of native Westslope cutthroat trout — the state fish — and are the headwaters of the Beaverhead River, which attracts anglers from around the nation. Moreover, water in the Beaverhead Valley is vital for agricultural operations that, along with outdoor recreation, support the local economy.

But that could all change. Several years ago, despite objections from local anglers and hunters, the Bureau of Land Management issued a block of leases in the Tendoys. Some of the leases sold for the minimum allowable bid — just $2/acre — while others sold “noncompetitively,” which means they didn’t sell at auction and were later issued  for just $1.50/acre.

Meanwhile, in eastern Utah, the Bureau of Land Management is evaluating a proposed drilling project less than half a mile from the western boundary of the National Park Service’s Dinosaur National Monument long after the leases should have expired. The outcome could remove a “no surface occupancy” restriction, allowing for the construction of roads and well pads on public lands that are rich in cultural sites, fossils and wildlife habitat. Energy development here not only poses a direct threat to those resources and Dinosaur National Monument, but could also contribute to air pollution and to water shortages in the Colorado River Basin. The agency estimates that nearly 1 million gallons, approximately three acre feet of fresh water, is needed to drill wells here.

Apart from conservation values, there are other good reasons oil and gas leasing near national parks and monuments has sparked controversy. These crown jewels of our public land system generate billions of dollars in revenue every year from outdoor recreation. Further, protected public lands are often the centerpiece of much larger landscapes, providing secure habitat for fish and wildlife and scenic vistas that bring in millions of visitors every year.  

These drilling proposals underscore fundamental flaws with the federal oil and gas leasing system. When public lands can be leased for as little as $1.50/acre, it’s time to take a step back, scrutinize federal policies and evaluate whether oil and gas development is the highest and best use of our most valuable public lands. This is especially true where there are little to no economically viable reserves of oil and gas. 

Evaluating the federal oil and gas program is long overdue. Oil and gas development is one of the multiple uses of our public lands — but only one — and public policy that made sense a century ago doesn’t necessarily make sense today. This is critical in light of the administration’s recent decision to resume leasing on public lands because of a court order.

Nor can the administration ignore circumstances on the ground, where development proposals threaten places like the Tendoy Mountains and Dinosaur National Monument. 

We must care for our public lands so future generations have the same outdoor access and opportunities that we did. It’s time for Congress and the administration to advance common-sense solutions that usher in a new era of responsible energy development. 

Matt Kirby is director of energy and landscape conservation at the National Parks Conservation Association.

Steve Kandell is director of Trout Unlimited’s Angler Conservation Project.

Tags Fossil fuels Matt Kirby national parks oil and gas public lands Steve Kandell

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