Over the last two years, even as Congress has passed historic public lands protections and the government is finally measuring the economic impact of outdoor recreation, the administration has been aggressively leasing off public lands to developers without input from taxpayers.
This administration has opened up millions of acres of public land for oil and gas leasing, in some cases giving away the rights to these lands for less than $2 an acre. Last year, the BLM offered three times as much land for lease compared to what was offered under the last administration (12.8 million acres in 2018 compared to 4.3 million acres from 2013-2016).
And while these lands belong to all Americans, the American people have been virtually cut out of the process. Developers nominate parcels of land, often without knowing whether they actually have oil and gas potential, and have been buying up leases for less than a cup of coffee per acre. Officials have shortened the public comment period on these leases from 30 days to 10 days, in some cases only accepting mailed public comments, so it’s more difficult for us to track and respond to what’s happening. Once land is leased, developers can lock it up for development at any time.
This is a problem for many reasons, including the impact of unnecessary development on our climate. For people who love the outdoors, it is also a huge threat to the places we love. These giveaways threaten places people get outside, and even inactive leases can hang like an axe over the head of millions of additional acres. With leases that can last decades, this is a problem that will far outlast the current administration.
Many developers lease these lands speculatively and will sit on leases for years as they wait for commodities prices to change or a new drilling technique to make it cheaper to develop. Even when leased land isn’t being actively developed, it can pose problems. Let’s say a community wants to build a mountain bike trail in Nevada to support local quality of life and support a sustainable economy, but the land is leased by a foreign oil company. Is it worth investing in the trail building, knowing that at any minute, the community could be shut out for development?
For example, we recently identified a trail system near Glenwood, Utah that could be impacted by future oil and gas lease sales in June. Last spring, volunteers built a new race course (Spring 2018) for the Southern Region of the Utah High School Cycling League, and holds races that are sponsored by National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA). But this summer, the BLM will lease off a parcel of land that comprises nearly the entire course. And they offered just a 10-day comment period. Click on the map from the Outdoor Alliance GIS Lab at right to learn more.
Although the administration has been moving aggressively, these giveaways have garnered little public attention. Partly this is because the American people get virtually no notice, and very little chance to comment, when land is being auctioned off. But leases last for decades, so leasing millions of acres now will have effects for generations. Leased land is often excluded from protection for their conservation, wildlife, or recreation values, which can complicate efforts down the road to protect key places.
So what can be done to stop this? The first challenge is simply keeping up with where and how much land the administration is trying to lease. In 2018, we formed a partnership with Rocky Mountain Wild to monitor new oil and gas lease sales in six western states (Colorado, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming). As part of Rocky Mountain Wild’s Oil and Gas Watch program, we screen our recreation database (rock climbing sites, mountain biking, hiking, and skiing trails, and whitewater paddling runs) against new oil and gas lease parcels to identify any important places where the outdoor community can stop potential new leases.
In parallel, the outdoor community can use their power with lawmakers to ask Congress to prioritize conserving public lands. Outdoor enthusiasts have been speaking up to defend the public process, advocate for more substantive comment periods, and defend bedrock laws like the Clean Water Act and NEPA that ensure environmental review and opportunities for citizens to participate. Over the years, we have also worked with the Department of Interior and the Forest Service to make sure that land planning balances recreation and conservation fairly with development so that these kind of fire sales are less likely.
But there’s more Outdoor Alliance can do. We want to ramp up our ability to monitor new oil and gas leases. We also need to inventory current leases that are dormant, advocating for outdoor recreation and for balanced use, when necessary. We hope you’ll join us to keep a watch over our public lands, and to continue sharing your priorities with lawmakers who can fight the administration’s giveaways.