Conservation Column: A Call to Arms

“Energy companies will have the right to explore virtually anywhere—and the impacts of that development on fish and wildlife will be a secondary consideration,” says Rollin Sparrowe, a director of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP). “I’m concerned that sportsmen have no idea how much land we’re talking about, how far-reaching and long-­lasting these plans will be.”

In fact, supreme authority on approximately 42 million acres of prime hunting and fishing habitat across the West could be handed to the energy industry for 15 to 20 years by the end of 2008. After that, an additional 8 million or more acres could be affected. The area stretches from Idaho and Montana south through Wyo­ming, Colorado, and Utah, and into New Mexico. It touches everything from blue-ribbon trout streams to legendary mule deer, elk, pronghorn, and grouse ranges.

Executive Bias
Sportsmen should not be surprised. President Bush publicly proclaimed his bias for the energy industry over wildlife in 2001 with Executive Orders 13211 and 13212, which turned decades of American public-land management on its head. Until then, companies wanting to turn a profit off public property had to show how their projects would impact fish and wildlife. After Bush's orders, all activities on BLM lands—including fish and wildlife management—had to include a "statement of energy effects," showing how they would impact energy. No impingement would be tolerated.

Conservation groups protested, but in the intervening years a rope-a-dope scenario has played out: While sportsmen and other conservationists were exhausting themselves slugging away at specific properties (such as the Trapper’s Point corridor in Wyo­ming and the Roan Plateau in Colorado), the BLM under the Bush administration was ­revising or amending up to 50 RMPs that would in essence cede long-term control over entire landscapes to the energy industry.

Now, the administration is sending a good-bye present to its oil and gas pals as it heads out the door. Last December the BLM began releasing the first of 25 RMPs that could be submitted this year.

“They’ve been working on these things since they took office, but we’re not getting a look at most of them until the final months,” Sparrowe says. “We have 30 days to protest each of these plans, but most of these things run thousands of pages. They cover huge amounts of land. It’s just staggering.”

The RMPs being written for the various BLM districts allow more than 90 percent of this public land to be available for drilling—and that drilling will take place under rules that make it extremely difficult to prevent serious damage to fish and wildlife habitat.

Wildlife advocates’ worst fears that RMPs being released would result in an explosion of drilling have proved accurate. According to a January Wilderness Society analysis of existing RMPs and announced projects, some 126,381 new oil and gas wells will be authorized over the next 15 to 20 years in Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico.

The impact on fish, wildlife, and sportsmen will be heavy.

"We're talking about disruption of migration corridors, breeding areas, and other sensitive habitats for a wide range of mammals, birds, and fish," Sparrowe says. "Look, we are not against all energy development. The nation needs fuel. But we know this can be done in a way that is much less damaging to fish and wildlife. We're saying these are our public lands, and we have the right to demand that where development has to take place, it must take place in the least damaging way to fish and wildlife."
That's where hunters and fishermen come in.

The Voice That's Heard in Washington
Mainstream environmental groups such as the Wilderness Society excel at the hard work of researching and gathering facts. But as that group's Nada Culver points out, sportsmen are clearly the most capable of getting this administration's ear.

“It is absolutely worth a hunter’s or angler’s effort to get involved in this,” she says. “They are the one group this administration will at least listen to.”

The importance of that point—and the nature of this fight—was driven home last year when the BLM released a list of lands for an energy-lease auction in southeastern Wyoming. Sportsmen who saw the list were shocked that it included a 28,000-acre section of the beautiful Saratoga Valley, encompassing the blue-­ribbon North Platte trout fishery as well as prime big-game and upland-bird hunting ranges. So they took action.

“We had just a few weeks, but we were able to organize an effective protest,” says Wyoming resident Dwayne Meadows, a field representative for the TRCP. “We had a ground­swell of opposition to this thing. Eventually we got the state rep and Gov. Dave Freudenthal to join with us.”

By December, the BLM had agreed to pull that section from the sale. But the victory lasted only until the draft of the new RMP for the region was released in January. “The local BLM guy called me to give me a heads-up that the new RMP would allow that section to be included in any future auction,” Meadows says.

“The way these RMPs are written,” he continues, “any time an oil company requests that any section of property be included in an auction, the local BLM office has to comply. We can protest again—and we might win again. But the next time a company wants that parcel, it will be listed again.”

Getting land permanently pulled from lease sales is the obvious solution. Although doing so is difficult, it’s possible—and those few victories have occurred thanks to the active support of hunters and fishermen. Culver says the BLM last year began considering special protection for a backcountry hunting unit in its Little Snake field area in northwestern Colorado. Since then, the agency has said it will include a similar exception in the Jarbidge (Idaho) RMP.

“These things would not have happened without the support of the hunting and fishing community,” Culver stresses. “If it becomes a trend, it will only be because of that involvement by hunters and anglers. They need to be involved.”

And they need to be involved now.

Sportsmen can find an excellent step-by-step explanation of the BLM planning process and future activities, with directions on how to get involved, at wilderness.org. An online petition is available on the TRCP website at ­responsiblesportsmen.org.