New Information Documents Bush Administration’s Land-Management Shift

The Wilderness Society Wednesday 26 May 2004

Secret policy changes made oil and gas development the dominant use of federal lands.

Washington, DC – Although Federal law requires that public lands be managed to balance environmental protection and commercial exploitation, new information released today by The Wilderness Society (TWS) shows that the Bush administration has used a series of arcane and interrelated administrative decisions, and the settlement of a key “friendly” lawsuit, to make oil and gas development the dominant use of federal public lands.

“These documents show that the Bush Administration, without changing any statutes or regulations, and without consulting with the American people, has made a series of decisions that has profoundly changed the way our public lands are managed,” said William H. Meadows, president of The Wilderness Society. “The laws governing our public lands mandate that key environmental values are to be protected, but these documents show that the only thing the leadership of the Interior Department cares about is allowing the oil and gas industry to do whatever it wants with our public lands. And they’ve done this without changing any laws or regulations.”

The Bush administration’s effort to make oil and gas development the dominant use of public lands was put in place via a series of internal directives to state and field offices of the Bureau of Land Management(BLM). These directives, known as “instruction memoranda,” were developed without any opportunities for public review and comment, despite the May 2001 recommendation by Vice President Cheney’s energy task force that reviews of land status be done with “full public participation.”

“The Administration has profoundly altered the way our public lands are managed, and has done so without consulting the owners of that land – the American people,” said The Wilderness Society’s Dave Alberswerth, who has tracked the Administration’s secret policy changes and gathered them together in a document called “Abuse of Trust”. For example, a BLM instruction memorandum issued in August 2001 instructed BLM state directors to issue oil and gas leases and drilling permits on lands where new land use plans had not yet been completed. Another memorandum, issued in February of this year, in effect required BLM state directors to issue leases on demand to the oil and gas industry. These and other key decisions documented in the report were undertaken without any of the “consultation, communication, and cooperation” so often invoked by Interior Secretary Gale Norton.

“These internal directives and decisions document the Administration’s fealty to the oil and gas industry, and their complete disregard for their stewardship responsibility for our public lands,” said Alberswerth. “Instead, the new policies pushed leasing and development full-steam ahead regardless of whether the public had commented or the environmental consequences had been weighed.”

Relaxed environmental safeguards are also documented in BLM records from its Pinedale, Wyoming, field office, which administers one of the most active areas of intense natural gas development on Western public lands. Records released in March 2003 indicate that nearly all formal requests by oil and gas operators for “exemptions” to lease conditions designed to protect wildlife populations and habitat from the adverse impacts of oil and gas activities were granted. For example, of 172 requests for “exceptions” from sage grouse protection requirements, the BLM granted 169, most of them for the entire season. In addition, instruction memoranda issued in 2003 to reduce wildlife protections further endangered key species.

“Wyoming’s Upper Green River Valley provides winter range for one of the world’s largest herds of antelope, mule deer, and elk,” said Alberswerth. “Natural treasures like the Upper Green will be permanently destroyed if the government just rubber stamps every industry request for a drilling exemption.”

Taken as a whole, the memoranda and policies compiled by The Wilderness Society document a commitment by the Bush Administration to eschew environmental safeguards and open more sensitive lands to drilling even when the government’s own 2003 report showed that 85% of federal oil and 88% of natural gas resources in the region were currently available for leasing and development.

“It’s clear that the management of America’s public lands has become radically unbalanced in favor of oil and gas development at the expense of other values Congress intended to be protected,” said Alberswerth. “Unless balance is restored to management of our public lands, this abuse of trust will continue to devastate the West’s last great landscapes, from Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front to New Mexico’s Otero Mesa.”