Both President Clinton and President George H.W. Bush ended their time in office with the number of acres of public land permanently protected comparable to those leased for oil and gas development. However, the scales have inexorably tipped in favor of the oil and gas industry during the first four years of the Obama administration, with almost two and a half acres leased for every one permanently protected.
Secretary Babbitt’s remarks by no means suggest that energy leases for public lands cease. Instead, we must recognize that any sustainable energy strategy must address conservation as a tool to protect clean air and water, especially in the face of a changing climate. We must balance the economic pressures of today against the need to preserve public spaces and natural resources for the long term.
Secretary Babbitt’s proposal is all the more needed in the face of the ongoing oil and gas boom, lest an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy become an “all-of-the-acres-drilled” strategy.
To be sure, we have seen significant, hard-won conservation successes over the past four years. As part of the America’s Great Outdoors initiative, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar traveled the country to hear from local communities and identify conservation priorities. This level of collaboration takes time and has prepared the administration well to move forward with protecting landscapes with strong local support, starting with honoring the request by New Mexico Senators Udall and Heinrich to designate Rio Grande del Norte as the nation’s next national monument.
The last Congress’ inaction on dozens of wilderness bills introduced by various members—bills that would have protected 5 million acres of public land—should help motivate President Obama to creatively use the executive authorities provided to him. This is not just about protecting the freedom to roam the wide open country that belongs to all of us. It is about the 6.1 million American jobs and $646 billion in spending directly supported by the outdoor industry, which depends on protected public lands. That’s an industry practically twice the size of the oil and gas industry. That’s part of the reason why in 2011, 100 economists wrote to President Obama stating that they see federal protected public lands as “essential to the West’s economic future.”
Protected public lands are more than just beautiful landscapes. They are economic drivers that ensure the health and vitality of our great nation are preserved for our children and for future generations, as President Obama noted on Inauguration Day. It’s time to put conservation of these lands back on an equal footing with energy development.