Stay the course on sage-grouse plans

By Chris Saeger

Next week, governors from across the West, including Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, are headed to Whitefish, Montana for the Western Governors Association (WGA) annual meeting.

Joining them will be Montana native and Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

While a number of issues will be on the docket at the WGA meeting, few issues will receive as much attention as the West’s most iconic bird — the greater sage-grouse.

Just two years ago, the sage-grouse was near the brink of an Endangered Species Act (ESA) listing. Among many threats, unchecked oil and gas development was depleting healthy sage-grouse habitat; this danger extended far beyond the birds’ well-being — it meant that recreationists, sportsmen and women, ranchers, and local economies were also threatened.

But through a long and collaborative process, stakeholders from across the West — including Western governors, sportsmen and women, ranchers, and conservationists — developed 15 individual and locally-focused land management plans that protect the sage-grouse, bolsters local economies and supports the Western way of life.

Unfortunately, all that hard work and collaboration is now in jeopardy due to an irresponsible and misguided decision by Secretary Zinke.

Earlier this month, Zinke released a secretarial order that would open the management plans up for review and give special interests free rein over public lands.

Zinke could not have picked a worse way to go about changing the plans. Right now, the Bureau of Land Management does not even have a permanent director and Zinke has called for job cuts across the Interior Department.

The last thing states and communities need is an agency back in Washington — that’s still finding its footing — conducting a rushed, internal “review” process that would substitute the judgment of special interests and politicians for years of hard work and investment by stakeholders across eleven Western states.

The plans have been so successful from the very beginning because they have been locally driven — not top-down orders from a few influential leaders in Washington. Changing course on the sage-grouse conservation plans would amount to silencing the voices of hundreds of thousands of Westerners who weighed in on these initiatives and the majority of voters across the West who support them.

Western governors, like Gov. Hickenlooper, need to continue to stand up for the collaboration, partnership, and hard work that has already been done for sage-grouse conservation. Any attempt to weaken the plans would threaten rural families’ livelihoods and America’s outdoor heritage.

Western economies rely on the roughly $1 billion a year in economic output that is driven by sage-grouse habitat in the outdoor recreation and tourism sectors. Furthermore, Western communities rely on the sage-grouse plans to ensure that our working landscapes are healthy for ranchers and sportsmen and women for generations to come.

We need Secrectary Zinke to prove that he stands with Western communities and not corporate special interests.  Zinke inherited policies that were well on their way to making our public lands work better for all stakeholders, and now he is creating uncertainty for industries and communities that need to plan for a prosperous future. As Western leaders and stakeholders gather at WGA, let us hope that Zinke listens to them and puts our Western communities ahead of special interests.

Chris Saeger is the director of the Western Values Project.


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