Opinion

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Guest Column

Keep the ‘Public’ in Public Lands Decision Making

Lawmakers must ensure that fairness, transparency and accountability stay at the center of the oil and gas leasing process

Having the Bureau of Land Management responsible for oil and gas leasing on National Forest System lands has always posed an awkward management dilemma for the U.S. Forest Service in administering the natural resources of our National Forests.  A proposal by the Trump Administration will make this situation, especially as it relates to fish and wildlife habitat management, worse – not better off.

We can imagine plenty of ways to improve the treasured forests and grasslands here in the Treasure State. Both of us had long careers in the U.S. Forest Service so we have a few ideas. But aggressively expanding oil and gas leasing on these lands and cutting the public out of that decision process is one of the last things we would recommend.

Yet, the Trump administration has proposed a rule that would make the oil and gas leasing less transparent, less open to public scrutiny and less tethered to conservation concerns and scrutiny by the Forest Service itself.

This proposed rule doesn’t make sense for a lot of reasons.

First, about 1.8 million acres of public land in Montana has already been leased for oil and gas drilling.  And about two-thirds of those leased acres are idle. Similar statistics apply to other states. We’re in the midst of an energy glut so from a business perspective, more leasing on our public lands should not be a priority.

Second, as we saw early in the COVID-19 outbreak, there’s a huge demand for access to parks and public lands all across the nation. These public lands are good for recreation, health and for local economies. Devoting more of the public’s land to energy extraction doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Third, as we try to find ways to deal with the climate and wildlife extinction crises, we need to conserve more land for wild creatures, not less. Forests and grasslands soak up carbon, keeping it out of the atmosphere. And large, connected parcels of conservation lands help wildlife to migrate as necessary to ensure healthy populations.

Lastly, every additional acre of National Forest land that is leased for oil and gas development has significant implications on the revision of Forest Plans. Although several Forest Plans in Montana have recently been revised, other forests are either currently revising their plans or are preparing to begin revision in the years ahead. By having vast acreage under lease, even if those leases are inactive, options for mitigating or enhancing other resources are severely reduced or constrained. This is especially true for landscape level concerns such as habitat connectivity for fish and wildlife.

At the Montana Wildlife Federation, where we have both served as president, we want to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to pursue the outdoor traditions that so many Montanans love, like hunting, fishing and hiking. We work hard to protect public access and recreational opportunities for all, as well as preserving our excellent fish and wildlife habitat.

Obviously the public should have a say in how to manage our public lands, especially in decisions that could permanently damage wild lands and pollute water. Leasing decisions should not occur behind closed doors, keeping the public in the dark while making it even easier for oil and gas interests to lease more public land for drilling.

This proposed rule poses a threat to Montana’s National Forests. Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines and Gov. Steve Bullock should firmly oppose it. Our lawmakers in Helena and Washington must ensure that fairness, transparency and accountability stay at the center of the oil and gas leasing process. That means preventing this misguided rule from becoming policy.

Tom Puchlerz is current president of the Montana Wildlife Federation and served as a U.S. Forest Service biologist and administrator for 38 years. Skip Kowalski is past president of the Montana Wildlife Federation and retired after four decades working as a biologist in the USFS.