Jewell offers blueprint that BLM in Colorado needs to follow
By Tom Kleinschnitz
In her Oct. 31 speech to the National Press Club, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell laid out a vision for our public lands that promises a smart and balanced approach that puts conservation and recreation on equal footing with energy development.
It was reassuring to hear. The first six months of Jewell’s tenure had been filled with a lot of anticipation for westerners. We knew she worked in the oil and gas industry and later ran the largest outdoor retailing company in the United States. That’s a good mix for the West, given how complex public lands management can be.
We just didn’t know where she planned to take the Interior Department, which has a big impact on economies in the West, like ours in Grand Junction, that depend on the land.
We had also just had one of Colorado’s own, Ken Salazar, step down as Interior secretary. He was always known for taking on tough issues, bringing everyone to the table and making the right choices — even if that meant compromise.
So, when Jewell spoke about both the need for responsible energy development and conserving our public lands and protecting our national parks, it was a language we can understand here in the West. This sort of common-sense approach is welcome news for many businesses in the Grand Junction area.
Our local economy includes businesses to suit every aspect of outdoor recreation — hunting and fishing, mountain biking and hiking, snowmobiling and off-highway vehicle riding, rafting and kayaking, skiing and snowboarding. All these activities attract millions of visitors each year who drive spending with outfitters, lodges, restaurants and retailers. Thousands of locals are employed as a result of outdoor recreation.
One thing all of us in the business rely on is access to undeveloped public lands, to unspoiled rivers and backcountry. Locals and visitors alike want our streams to support healthy stocks of cutthroat, rainbow and brown trout, our forests and valleys to remain home to the vast herds of deer and elk we’re used to seeing around here, and the magnificent views — desert vistas, mountain ridgelines, forested hillsides — to remain untarnished by drill rigs, well pads or any other types of development.
Most of us also understand that energy development is a critical part of our local economy, and we accept that some of our public lands should be available to lease to energy companies.
Unfortunately, our nation’s policies have long favored the oil and gas business over tourism and recreation, despite the fact that outdoor recreation generates $13.2 billion in direct economic activity and employs 124,600 people in Colorado.
We don’t have to look far to find unfortunate examples where things are out of balance. Last year, at Dinosaur National Monument, the Colorado office of the Bureau of Land Management planned to auction leases along access roads and just a few hundred feet from the visitor center.
The monument draws more than 200,000 visitors each year who enjoy its archaeological and natural wonders. Dinosaur and the surrounding lands are also important for river outfitters like myself, who take visitors down the Yampa and the Green rivers, both of which run through the area. All it takes are a few badly placed wells near the banks of the Yampa or Green to destroy some of the most enjoyable and scenic river trips.
Management — or mismanagement — of these lands not only affects my livelihood and the livelihoods of many others in the outdoor recreation and tourism industries, it affects the tens of thousands of residents on the West Slope who float, camp, hunt, fish, sled, ride and hike in this area each year.
Moreover, Colorado’s outdoors and amazing public lands make our state an attractive place to live, helping to bring in high-tech companies, manufacturing and other types of business.
The BLM in Colorado has started to turn a corner and use the type of landscape-level planning that Jewell directly referenced in her speech to encourage energy development in places of least conflict and bolster tourism and recreation. This approach will be critical for areas such as Dinosaur, at the Colorado-Utah border, as well as Shale Ridge near Grand Junction, the South Park Basin or BLM lands near Mesa Verde National Park.
For example, a master leasing plan for the Shale Ridges area, encompassing more than 900,000 acres north of Grand Junction and Fruita, would allow the BLM to support the oil and gas industry by reducing red tape and legal wrangling and encouraging development on areas of least conflict. This landscape approach would also ensure that lands of high value to outdoor recreation, tourism and wildlife habitat are conserved.
It was good to see Jewell make this type of “smart from the start” approach a priority for public lands. We don’t have to choose between developing our great wealth of oil and gas resources and supporting our local economy, which depends on the beauty of our landscape and the health of our rivers. We can do both, even if we have to make tough choices to strike the right balance.
Jewell has shown she is willing to lead. Now, she’ll need to make sure BLM in Colorado and other state offices make that vision a reality.
Tom Kleinschnitz owns Adventure Bound River Expeditions in Grand Junction and is the chairman of the Tourism Committee for Club 20.