Personally, I enjoy many different kinds of adventures and activities that allow me to experience America’s wonderful outdoors. Professionally, I operate as counsel and consultant to many outdoor recreation companies, and my clients and colleagues rely on outdoor recreation infrastructure and opportunities to provide a spectrum of valuable experiences to their customers. The reality is that outdoor recreation provides a boon of sustainable assets and benefits to recreationists and communities, by supporting local businesses and economies and providing numerous health benefits, both physical and mental. My personal and professional interests overlap, and I regularly recreate locally and travel significant distances for both.
Through these experiences, I see and believe in the many sustainable returns that public land infrastructure and usage can provide to individuals and communities.
Historically, the way public lands are leased for oil and gas development has a significant negative impact on the outdoor recreation community and its potential, including for many “frontline” communities that are looking to diversify their economies.
If you hike, bike, ski, fish, hunt, climb, offroad, camp, or otherwise engage in any of the many unique outdoor recreation opportunities on our amazing public lands, you have an interest in the federal oil and gas leasing system. One problem with this system is that it puts oil and gas development ahead of all other uses of our public lands, taking time and resources away from land managers that impact their ability to manage for the protection and enhancement of our outdoor ecosystems for recreational use and returns that benefit us all.
We need to fix this. Part of the goal of outdoor recreation is experiencing viewsheds, natural scapes, and air and water quality, and many communities have strong interests in remaining healthy places to visit, invest in, and move to.
More than a year ago, the Department of Interior issued its Report on the Federal Oil and Gas Leasing Program which identified a number of issues with the program. The administration found that the leasing system continues to fail Americans in several key ways: leasing rates shortchange taxpayers; the true costs of environmental damage to our public lands are not accounted for and costs for clean-up are passed onto American taxpayers; speculation by the oil and gas industry is rampant; and land management resources that would be better spent on other public land uses, such as outdoor recreation, are expended on oil and gas operations — even in lands with low potential for retrieving oil and gas to begin with.
Acknowledging we have a problem with how we manage leasing for oil and gas on public lands is a good start. Last year Congress enacted the Inflation Reduction Act, which addressed some of the problems related to speculation and outdated financial rules.
Then last fall, the Bureau of Land Management issued “guidance” for field offices to comply with the Inflation Reduction Act and continue to address Biden’s executive order on the climate crisis. While this guidance includes many positive reforms, such as an evaluation system that could eliminate leasing of lands with other significant values such as outdoor recreation, it doesn’t address all of the problems with the system and could easily be reversed by the next administration.
It’s imperative that we continue to make progress that moves us toward a healthier and sustainable future. To do so, the Interior Department should take the next step and formalize these interim reforms, along with additional needed changes, through a durable rulemaking that will protect our public lands for many different kinds of use, including valuable outdoor recreation and conservation for future generations.
It has also been a goal of mine to try and ensure that, when it comes to America’s outdoors, future generations have similar opportunities and experiences that I have had. This is about realizing where our country is going, and could go, in business, economics, health, and fairness – with the overall goal of equitable access for all members of our diverse population. We are beginning to realize the many returns and value that such public lands provide our communities by leading the way for a sustainable recreation industry and economics.
The recent steps are progress towards public land management that takes into account more than just industries that produce revenue for a few using lands owned by us all. We need the Interior Department to recognize the inherent value in the outdoors for all and better protect our public lands, waters, and climate. It should formalize a comprehensive set of long overdue reforms in a permanent rule that will comply with the Inflation Reduction Act and respond to Interior’s own recommendations for fixing a broken federal onshore oil and gas leasing system, resulting in wild landscapes for generations to come.
Forrest Merithew, of Fort Collins, is the founder and principal of Conatus Counsel, a fractional general counsel firm for passion and social impact businesses and brands.
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