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Fall 2006 Issue
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Light on the Western Horizon
Time to Share Some Good News
By Jennifer Lamb, NOLS Public policy director

NOLS has made successful strides to protect Utah’s Dirty Devil Canyon and Wyoming’s Bridgter-Teton National Forest.
Photo: Steven Brutger

Lately, if you have a conversation about western public lands, it is likely to include a discussion of the intense pressure these lands are under as a result of our country’s thirst for energy resources. Energy development is an economic boon to many western states, but the scale and scope of such development have mushroomed in the past five years to the point that many people now question its social and environmental side effects.

As demand for energy resources has escalated, the economics of extracting natural gas and oil have improved dramatically, and technology has advanced to a point where it has become feasible to develop in areas that we might never have thought possible or desirable. In particular, federal land under the care of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Forest Service is the target of intense natural gas and coal bed methane development. Several key NOLS operating areas in Wyoming and Utah are facing natural gas development on a scale that has the potential to compromise the wilderness experiences and educational outcomes of our staff and students. When this happens, even though our mission is education, we are compelled to advocate for the protection of the places that sustain our programs and allow us to operate.

Given the political, social and economic forces supporting energy development, however, opposing it is a long uphill battle, and the likelihood of success is small. The school doesn’t oppose all energy development—we, too, consume energy resources—but we believe that not all public lands are appropriate to develop and that some should remain as they are to support traditional uses, such as recreation and tourism, which are also critical to western states’ economies. Though our efforts to minimize oil and gas drilling in our operating areas have been thwarted numerous times by the BLM, we are beginning to see some bright lights on the horizon.

Photo: Cara Rudio

In a significant and high profile decision in August, a district court ruled that the Utah BLM acted illegally in offering 16 parcels of land for oil and gas leasing in a November 2003 auction. NOLS had filed an administrative protest on seven of these parcels located in the area of Dirty Devil Canyon, an important hiking area in central Utah, and in Desolation Canyon, a river corridor that supports our Vernal, Utah river classroom. Our protest was denied and we opted not to appeal on the basis that both our likelihood of success and available resources to challenge were small. Other groups persevered, leading to this court decision, which determined that the BLM neglected to perform adequate evaluation of “no leasing” alternatives as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and that it failed to consider new information about the wilderness characteristics and values of the land.

This is an important decision, not only because it withdraws important wilderness-quality land from development, but also because it opens the door to re-evaluating much of the leasing that has occurred since this November 2003 auction. The court has essentially said that the BLM cannot sidestep NEPA by relying on outdated land-use plans and ignoring its own studies that identify lands as worthy of further study as wilderness.

In Wyoming, we have been working closely with a diverse coalition of organizations to stave off oil and gas development in the Wyoming Range of the Bridger-Teton National Forest, and we have recently seen a few hopeful signs here as well. The most significant is the number and diversity of groups that have come together to create a long-term plan for protecting the traditional values of the range—hunting, fishing, outfitting and recreation. In a conservative state like Wyoming, it is rare to see the conservation community, family outfitting businesses, wilderness educators, sportsmen’s groups and labor unions sitting at the table together to talk strategy. But it’s happening, and not just in western Wyoming. Similar collaboration is occurring in Montana, New Mexico, Colorado and elsewhere. While it’s too early to say whether the Wyoming Range effort will succeed, the Interior Board of Land Appeals recently ruled in favor of a request for a stay on a lease issued in the heart of the range, suggesting that the BLM may have erred in its outright rejection of a group appeal of oil and gas leasing and must perform additional assessment.

It’s too soon to say whether there is a shift occurring in how we will pursue development on western federal lands in the years ahead. It is heartening, though, to hear the breadth and depth of voices speaking out because they realize that there are only so many wild places left.

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