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Enviros urge Obama to create monuments, protect lands

Published August 7, 2013 1:14 pm

Wilderness • Environmental groups call for an aggressive move to avoid exploiting wildlands.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Washington • Environmental groups are leaning on President Barack Obama to use his authority to preserve more open space, raise royalty and rental rates for oil and gas leases and establish a mitigation fee for energy exploration.

In its "Blueprint for Balance," the groups, including the liberal Center for American Progress and the Wilderness Society, say that the Obama administration needs to act to ensure America's treasured landscapes are not ruined by development and that long-lasting outdoor recreation opportunities exist for future generations.

"There's a gold rush mentality right now in our public lands and that mentality not only puts the energy boom at risk of bust but it also has real costs to America's recreation, tourism and outdoor economy," Wilderness Society President Jamie Williams told reporters Tuesday. "The bottom line is we need to be as intentional about conservation as we are about energy development, putting conservation on equal ground with development."

Obama can, the groups say, take action on most of the suggestions in their report, though starting a mitigation fund may have to go through Congress. While environmentalists usually align with Democrats on issues, the coalition is making its argument noting that the Obama administration is doling out energy exploration leases 2.5 times faster than it is protecting federal lands as wilderness or monuments.

Included in the report to be released on Wednesday, the groups urge the Obama administration to:

• Create more national monuments, including around Desolation Canyon in Utah, to protect against any drilling. The president has the unilateral power under the Antiquities Act to do so.

• Hike royalty rates oil and gas companies pay to Interior so that taxpayers get a fair return, and update rules on measuring output of those drilling sites.

• Boost rates charged for leases on public lands to prod companies to drill or move on.

• Establish a mitigation fee for oil or gas exploration to offset impacts of drilling or mining.

The environmentalists argue that such moves would bring balance to the issue, and aimed their report more at Obama than Congress, which in its last session, didn't set aside a single piece of wilderness. That was the first time since the end of World War II that happened.

Ashley Korenblat, the owner of the Moab tour company Western Spirit Cycling, said on a conference call organized by the Center for American Progress that the blueprint offered by the groups zeroes in on the fact that making a living off the land doesn't mean harming it.

"It's particularly important because it reflects the new reality that land in its natural state has economic value," Korenblat said. "We need to shift this debate away from the false choice that [it's] either resource extraction or land protection."

Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican who chairs the House Natural Resources subcommittee over public lands, notes that environmental groups often forget to mention that there are more than 450 million acres of federal land with a protective designation, while just 38 million are leased for oil and gas production.

"Conservation and energy development can coexist in our country," Bishop said, noting there are areas that should be utilized for their oil and gas resources but also areas protected as scenic landscapes and recreation spots.

The policies suggested by the report would duplicate existing environmental reviews and further tax businesses trying to help revive the economy, said Bishop.

The Utahn is pushing an initiative, known as the "grand bargain," to bring together environmentalists, energy executives and local and state leaders to find a compromise to the contention over public lands. That, he says, is a "better way" to address land-use policies.

tburr@sltrib.com