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
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
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.