Balance energy development and river health

Posted: 06/24/2014
By: Nathan Fey

Cutting through the steep canyons and arid sage lands of northwestern Colorado and northeastern Utah, the Yampa and Green rivers are the region’s lifeblood. Their relentless forces are responsible for carving out the region’s stratified geology and for exposing the fossils that give Dinosaur National Monument its name.

Their calm waters lure anglers and their rapids attract thousands — almost 10,000 — kayakers, rafters and adventure seekers each year. I have paddled both these rivers. They are treasures, and I know there is nothing more important to the vitality of this arid region. Protecting them is tantamount to protecting its prosperity.

In recent years, however, northwestern Colorado and northeastern Utah also increasingly have become targets for oil and gas development. At one point, there was actually a proposal to drill for oil and gas on land directly adjacent to the monument’s visitor center.

Oil and gas development are important economic drivers, but there is a right way and a wrong to go about it. There are places where it makes sense to drill and others where far more discretion is needed. Especially in places like northwestern Colorado and northeastern Utah, there is a huge need for proper balance between developing these resources and protecting the health of rivers that are the economic heart of local communities.

According to the latest statistics from the National Park Service, Dinosaur National Monument drew more than 300,000 visitors in 2012, generating almost $17 million in local economic activity and supporting more than 200 jobs.

Statewide in Colorado, outdoor recreation generates more than $13 billion in direct economic activity, directly employing 124,600 workers.

The economics alone make it vitally important to put energy development on equal ground with the long-term protection of natural resources like the Yampa and Green rivers.

One important way that is happening is through a new management tool being used by the Interior Department. “Master Leasing Plans” are meant to provide balance that has long been missing from policies governing when and where energy development takes place.

This ”smart from the start” approach is an objective way to evaluate all the activities that are taking place on public lands and ensure that companies engaged in rafting, kayaking, recreation and tourism are given a seat at the table alongside the oil and gas industry.

Smarter planning makes as much sense for oil and gas development as it does for recreation. By doing the planning up-front, we can avoid conflicts down the road, which means less red tape when it comes time to lease. This approach will provide certainty for both outdoor recreation businesses that depend on our land and rivers as well as drilling companies.

It’s encouraging to see Interior Secretary Sally Jewell moving forward with this smart approach for lands in Utah and Colorado near the Yampa and Green rivers and the region surrounding Dinosaur National Monument. This process is supported by local businesses and elected leaders, and if recent polling is any indication, there is widespread support for such policy tools by the general public.

According to a bipartisan poll by Colorado College, westerners prefer finding balance between drilling and protecting sensitive lands and resources rather than opening public lands to widespread drilling by almost a 3-to-1 margin. Similar percentages, even among conservatives and tea party supporters, favor taking a landscape-level approach for “balancing oil and gas drilling, fish and wildlife habitat protection, and recreational uses on millions of acres of public lands.”

As we continue to navigate the course of energy development on public lands in the West, making smarter decisions up-front will be increasingly important to making sure we find the best route through potentially turbulent waters.

Click here for the Steamboat Pilot Op-Ed.

Colorado Stewardship Director

Nathan Fey

1601 Longs Peak Ave.

Longmont, CO 80501

Phone: 303-859-8601
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