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New Plan To Offset Development Impacts On Public Lands

Credit: Wyoming Outdoor Council

Name a big issue that the Department of the Interior has been involved in during the Obama and Clinton administrations, and more likely than not David J. Hayes has been in the thick of it.

Now Hayes, who has served as the department’s number two in both administrations, is leaving government service — but not before he leaves his fingerprints on one more big initiative, and a critical one at that.

Historically, the Interior Department, especially its Bureau of Land Management, which oversees energy development on some 700 million acres of land, has tended to look at public land development projects like mining and oil and gas in isolation, without enough consideration for broad ecosystem effects stretching across large landscapes. That orientation began to shift as the Obama administration ramped up efforts to bring large-scale solar energy development to federal lands in the states in the southwest.

Instead of a piecemeal approach, project by project, Interior under Secretary Ken Salazar devised a kind of super zoning plan, analyzing the solar resources and the likely areas of conflict with wildlife and other important uses of those federal lands across millions of acres. The idea was to determine in advance which areas were best for development and which would likely involve the most potential damage to, and fights over, wildlife habitat, archaeological sites, and longstanding recreation uses. Not only would that be good for the land, but it would be good for the companies eager to build large solar energy plants who were looking for more regulatory certainty.

That look-before-you-leap, landscape-scale approach is now going to be expanded. The Bureau of Land Management is issuing draft guidelines for how its employees should develop and implement regional strategies to mitigate the impacts of development projects; not just by finding ways to compensate on its own lands, but also on other federal, state, tribal and even private lands. Rather than devising ways for making up for the impacts of a single oil and gas project during the permitting stage, for example, this new approach will have a blueprint in place for an entire region. And mitigation won’t be limited just to that one oil and gas project site. Interior will be able to compensate for resource damage in one development location by preserving resources elsewhere when appropriate, and for at least as long as the damage will be occurring on the development site.

This approach dovetails nicely with the Equal Ground campaign launched this week by the Center for American Progress and some of its allies. It’s designed to put land conservation and energy development on public lands on a more equal footing, after several years when oil and gas has taken far more acreage than has been preserved for development. As CAP chair John Podesta said earlier this week, when announcing the results of polling that backs up that more balanced approach:

“Voters do not see conservation and development of public lands as an either-or choice; instead, they want to see expanded protections for public lands — including new parks, wilderness, and monuments — as part of a responsible and comprehensive energy strategy.”

The poll showed that 65 percent of respondents in western states favor protecting public lands for future generations, while just 29 percent say that the government should focus on more opportunities for oil and gas drilling. And a huge majority — 78 percent — say that some of the money collected from allowing oil and gas companies to drill on public lands should be used to repair the damage that drilling causes.

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